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Lar v. Billings School District

United States District Court, D. Montana, Billings Division

August 10, 2018

CONNIE LAR, guardian of J.O., a minor Plaintiff,
v.
BILLINGS SCHOOL DISTRICT, a public school district,

          FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATION OF U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          TIMOTHY J. CAVAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Connie Lar (“Lar”), as the parent/guardian of J.O., a minor, brings this action pursuant to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d, et seq., and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Doc. 1 at 2.) Lar alleges that J.O. was subjected to a hostile educational environment and racial discrimination by defendant Billings School District (the “District”), and she seeks compensatory damages, punitive damages, injunctive relief, and attorneys' fees. (Doc. 1 at 11-12.) Before this Court is the District's Motion to Dismiss (the “Motion”), brought under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) and (6). (Docs. 3, 15.) Having reviewed the parties' arguments and submissions, the Court makes the following findings and recommendations.

         I. Factual Background

         In considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a court must accept as true the material facts alleged in a complaint, and construe them in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. Turner v. City and County of San Francisco, 788 F.3d 1206, 1210 (9th Cir. 2015). Therefore, the Court compiled the background facts from Lar's Complaint (Doc. 1) (the “Complaint”).

         J.O. is a minority-race minor student-athlete at Billings West High School (“Billings West”). (Doc. 1 at 1.) On or about January 19, 2017, Billings West Assistant Principal Rod Gottula (“Gottula”) called J.O. into his office. (Doc. 1 at 4.) Gottula questioned J.O. about allegations that J.O. had violated the District's Athletics and Activities Code of Conduct by attending a party where alcohol was being consumed. (Id.) The District's Athletics and Activities Code of Conduct for the 2016-2017 school year stated in pertinent part:

Knowingly Present - Student-participants who attend a house party or other functions in which under age drinking, drug use or other illegal activities are taking place and remain in attendance upon finding out about these illegal activities, are in violation of this Code of Conduct and will be subject to disciplinary action as defined above for chemical use. It is recommended that any student-participant who unknowingly enters a function in which illegal activity is taking place and subsequently recognizes the illegal activity, immediately leave the area and call their coach and their parents to report this situation. Student-participants who make the difficult choice to leave will not be subject to disciplinary action. (Doc. 1 at 3.)

         The Code of Conduct also included due process protections for students facing discipline:

Student-participants will be informed of their right to have a parent or other adult present while being questioned, the right to be given another copy of this Code of Conduct, and the right to submit evidence at all stages of this process. Participants shall be informed of the alleged violation and any evidence of or witnesses to the violation. The student shall have the right to explain or refute such information. Another school employee will be present during questioning of a student for the purposes of taking notes of the questions and answers and keeping a record of all materials gathered. (Doc. 1 at 7.)

         During Gottula's meeting with J.O., Gottula informed J.O. that he (Gottula) had received a photograph of J.O. at the party where alcohol was being consumed, but he refused to show the photograph to J.O. (Doc. 1 at 4.) J.O. admitted to being at the party, but said he left as soon as he realized alcohol was being consumed. (Id.) J.O. further stated he did not consume any alcohol at the party. (Id.) Nevertheless, Gottula suspended J.O. for 25 percent of the basketball season for allegedly violating the Code of Conduct. (Id. at 5.) Gottula did not inform J.O. of his rights to have a parent or other adult present during the meeting or to submit evidence, and no other District employee was present while Gottula questioned J.O. (Id. at 4.)

         Lar met with Gottula later that day. (Id. at 5.) During their meeting, Lar asked about the photograph. (Id.) Gottula responded, “I think it's a video, ” and refused to show it to Lar. (Id.) Gottula stated he knew J.O. was not consuming alcohol at the party, but J.O. should have contacted his coaches and disclosed that under-age drinking was taking place. (Id.) Gottula further acknowledged that J.O. was not participating in any sports at the time of the party, and therefore may not have been subject to the Code of Conduct. (Id.) Gottula did not ask Lar if J.O. had reported the incident to her. (Id.)

         Lar submitted a written appeal of J.O.'s suspension to Billings West Principal Dave Cobb (“Cobb”) that same day. (Id.) Cobb denied the appeal, stating the matter was in an investigative phase. (Id.) Lar met with Cobb on January 20, 2017, and Cobb informed Lar that he was meeting with other District employees that afternoon to render a final decision about J.O.'s suspension. (Id. at 4-5.) Cobb contacted Lar on the afternoon of January 20, 2017, to inform her that the District employees did not “have enough evidence to overturn J.O.'s suspension.” (Id. at 6.) J.O. was forced to sit out more than 25 percent of the season. (Id.)

         Lar claims that non-minority athlete participants were present at same party where alcohol was being consumed, and that these students were not suspended from participation in athletic events. (Id.) Additionally, Lar asserts District employees overturned the suspension of a non-minority athlete participant who had been suspended for attending a party at which alcohol was being consumed. (Id.)

         II. Parties' Arguments

         A. Complaint

         Lar asserts three causes of action in her complaint. Count I is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“§ 1983”), and alleges that the District violated J.O.'s Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection by subjecting J.O. to discipline without proper investigation, by contravening the District's due process policies, and by applying the Code of Conduct disparately against J.O. (Doc. 1 at 8.) Lar further alleges the District “has and/or had unconstitutional policies of subjecting minority students to discipline different in kind and extent than Billings Public School students of non-minority race, ” and failed “to adequately train and supervise School District employees with regard to due process and Equal Protection of the Laws.” (Id.) Lar contends the District “has followed these unconstitutional policies . . . with regard to other minority Billings School District students.” (Id.)

         In Count II, Lar alleges the District intentionally discriminated against J.O. on the basis of his race, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000d, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VI”). (Id. at 9.) Lar further contends the District “had knowledge of and allowed for a pervasive, severe, and objectively hostile environment regarding race by subjecting Plaintiff to discipline different in kind and extent than other Billings Public School students and preventing him from an equal educational experience.” (Id.)

         In Count III, Lar asserts another claim under § 1983 alleging a violation of J.O.'s Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection for failure to train or supervise. (Id. at 10.) The Complaint asserts the District, acting with deliberate indifference, “had a practice of failing to adequately train and supervise its employees in the fair disciplining of the student population, ” “failed to take reasonable actions to provide Plaintiff J.O. an educational experience equal to the educational experience provided to non-minority students, ” and subjected J.O. to “different disciplinary practices than those for non-minority students.” (Id. at 10-11.)

         B. The District's Motion to Dismiss

         The District now moves to dismiss the Complaint under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6).[1] Although it is not entirely clear from the District's motion and briefs, it appears to move to dismiss Counts I and III under Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, based on Eleventh Amendment immunity. The District appears to further seek dismissal of all claims under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure ...


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