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Zeyen v. Pocatello/Chubbuck School District #25

United States District Court, D. Idaho

May 15, 2018




         I. OVERVIEW

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. Dkt. 32. Plaintiff Michael Zeyen asserts Defendants Pocatello/Chubbuck School District #25 (“School District” or “District”), Century High School, and former Superintendent Mary M. Vagner violated his constitutional rights when they prohibited him from entering School District property or attending any school events. The Court held oral argument on the Motion on April 10, 2018. For the reasons outlined below, the Court finds good cause to GRANT the Motion in all respects except as to a specific portion of Zeyen's First Amendment claim.

         II. BACKGROUND[1]

         On May 4, 2015, Zeyen arrived at Washington Elementary School in Pocatello, Idaho, in order to take his daughter, then nine-year-old A.Z., to see Zeyen's attorney. Zeyen and A.Z.'s mother, Jennifer Lepchenske, are divorced. Lepchenske had primary physical custody of A.Z. and their other two children, but Zeyen had some visitation rights. Zeyen was concerned Lepchenske might reignite the custody battle, so he planned to take A.Z. to his attorney's office and have her give an affidavit.

         Zeyen went to the front office of Washington Elementary and informed the school secretary, Maggie Nielson, that he was there to pick up A.Z. Shortly thereafter, Zeyen proceeded to A.Z.'s classroom without receiving verbal confirmation from Nielson that he could go to the classroom. Zeyen maintains Nielson gestured to him while she was on the phone in a way that he understood to mean he could proceed to the classroom. The parties dispute whether A.Z. had expressed a desire not to go with Zeyen and how A.Z.'s teacher, Ms. Wolff, acted when Zeyen arrived at the classroom. The parties agree Wolff called the police, asked to see Zeyen's Divorce Decree, and then locked the classroom when Zeyen left to get the Decree from his car.

         When Zeyen returned with the Divorce Decree, he tried to open the classroom door, but it was locked. He then went to a nearby counselor's office, but the door was also locked. Zeyen returned to the main office and gave the Divorce Decree to Nielson, who made a copy of the document. The police arrived shortly thereafter. Zeyen told the officers he was there to pick up his daughter and showed them his Divorce Decree. The Decree states, in relevant part: “Father shall have visitation with the minor children anytime he is in the [sic] Pocatello, Idaho, and upon providing appropriate notice to Mother.” Dkt. 32-6, at 25. One of the officers, Officer Hancock, reviewed the Decree and asked Zeyen if he had provided appropriate notice to A.Z.'s mother before picking up his daughter. Defendants assert Zeyen told Officer Hancock he had not, while Zeyen maintains he stated he had provided the required notice. Officer Hancock then order Zeyen out of the school. Defendants assert Zeyen “yelled all the way out of the school” and then got into a “verbal altercation with A.Z.'s stepfather” outside of the building. Zeyen admits that he exchanged words with A.Z.'s stepfather. Shortly thereafter, Lepchenske arrived at the school and checked A.Z. out for the rest of the day.

         Later that day, Vagner (then Superintendent of the School District) drafted a letter to Zeyen prohibiting him from “entering upon any property or school building of the District” and from attending “any school-related activities” until he received “further written notice from this office.” Dkt. 32-6, at 56. The letter also stated that “[a]ny future communication will be limited to email and/or written mail through this office.” Id. Finally, the letter informed Zeyen that “[t]he personnel at the District Office, the schools and the transportation department have been advised of this determination and are required to report your presence on school property to the Pocatello Police Department School Resource Officers.” Id.

         On May 8, 2015, Zeyen's attorney wrote a letter to Vagner stating that her decision denied Zeyen's his fundamental right to participate in his child's education without providing him with due process of law. Id. at 58-59. The letter “demand[ed] that [she] reconsider” her decision and “stop interfering with Mr. Zeyen's rights to participate in his children's education.” Id. The letter also “request[ed] an opportunity to sit down with [Vagner] and discuss the issues that have arisen.” Id.

         Vagner responded with another letter on May 20, 2015. Id. at 61-62. She declined to retract the previous letter, stating that Zeyen did “not have a right to be on District property under the[] circumstances.” Id.

         In October 2015, Zeyen picked up his eldest daughter, O.Z., a member of the Century High School band, from the high school football stadium after she had a panic attack. The panic attack appears related to sexual harassment O.Z. was experiencing from a male band student. O.Z. reported the sexual harassment to the band teacher, Mr. Brien, who did nothing. Brien also penalized O.Z. for missing band practice because of her panic attack. Brien contacted Zeyen by phone to tell him why he was punishing O.Z. Kent Hobbs, the Director of Student Support Services, then called Zeyen and told him not to communicate with School District employees and not to travel to an up-coming off-site band concert. Hobbs followed up this phone call with a letter referencing Vagner's 2013 letter and reminding him that any “communication with district staff will need to be initiated through the school district administration.” Dkt. 33-3, at 23.

         Zeyen took O.Z. to their family doctor following her panic attack. The doctor wrote a note excusing O.Z. from band for the rest of the year and recommended that O.Z. transfer to a different high school.

         On July 25, 2016, Zeyen emailed Douglas Howell, the current Superintendent of the School District, requesting information about transferring O.Z. to a different high school. Howell forwarded the email to administrative secretary Robbi Marchand. Marchand sent Zeyen a transfer request form. Zeyen responded to Marchand's email by asking, “Are you related to Scott Marchand?”[2] Dkt. 32-6, at 38. When Marchand did not respond, Zeyen sent her a YouTube video featuring the theme song from Jeopardy. Id. at 40-42. Later that evening, Zeyen sent an email to Howell stating, “Best wishes to u to Doug.” Id. at 36. Shortly thereafter, Zeyen sent an email to Howell and Marchand with the subject line “Mac loses his mind.” Id. at 35. The email contained a link to a YouTube video entitled “Mac loses his mind.” Id. at 43-45. The video depicted a man carrying a machine gun. Id. The School District contacted the police about the emails. The police issued an “electronic media warning” to Zeyen. The School District also reissued Vagner's 2013 letter barring Zeyen from District property.

         On September 6, 2016, the District Clerk received a Notice of Tort Claim from Zeyen. On October 16, 2016, Zeyen filed this case. On February 2, 2018, Defendants filed the pending Motion for Summary Judgment. Also pending before the Court is a Motion to Strike portions of Zeyen's declaration, which Zeyen submitted in opposition to the Motion for Summary Judgment. Dkt. 35.


         Summary judgment is proper “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). This Court's role at summary judgment is not “to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Zetwick v. Cty. of Yolo, 850 F.3d 436, 441 (9th Cir. 2017) (citation omitted). In considering a motion for summary judgment, this Court must “view[] the facts in the non-moving party's favor.” Id. To defeat a motion for summary judgment, the respondent need only present evidence upon which “a reasonable juror drawing all inferences in favor of the respondent could return a verdict in [his or her] favor.” Id. (citation omitted). Accordingly, this Court must enter summary judgment if a party “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The respondent cannot simply rely on an unsworn affidavit or the pleadings to defeat a motion for summary judgment; rather the respondent must set forth the “specific facts, ” supported by evidence, with “reasonable particularity” that precludes summary judgment. Far Out Prods., Inc. v. Oskar, 247 F.3d 986, 997 (9th Cir. 2001).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Zeyen asserts three claims against Defendants: (1) violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; (2) violation of the First Amendment; and (3) violation of Idaho Code § 32-1013.[3] Defendants assert summary judgment is appropriate on the merits of all of these claims. They also argue that Century High School is an improper party and Vagner is entitled to qualified immunity.[4] Zeyen has not argued that Century High School is a proper party in this case.[5] The Court, therefore, finds good cause to DISMISS all claims Zeyen has asserted against Century High School. The Court will address the merits of each of Zeyen's claims in turn.

         A. Due Process Claim

         The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provides that “[n]o State shall . . . deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1. “A threshold requirement to a . . . procedural due process claim is the plaintiff's showing of a liberty or property interest protected by the Constitution.” Wedges/Ledges of Cal., Inc. v. City of Phoenix, 24 F.3d 56, 62 (9th Cir. 1994); Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 332 (1976). Ultimately, relief on a federal procedural due process claim is available only to a plaintiff who can “establish the existence of ‘(1) a liberty or property interest protected by the Constitution; (2) a deprivation of the interest by the government; [and] (3) lack of process.'” Shanks v. Dressel, 540 F.3d 1082, 1090 (9th Cir. 2008) (quoting Portman v. Cty. of Santa Clara, 995 F.2d 898, 904 (9th Cir. 1993)). Zeyen asserts he has a “fundamental liberty interest . . . to direct the education, upbringing, and care of his children.” The Court must determine whether (1) the Constitution protects this interest, if it does, (2) whether the government deprived Zeyen of this interest, and, if so, (3) whether the government failed to give Zeyen due process in depriving him of that interest.

         The Court notes that Defendants have creatively couched the interest at issue to their advantage. Defendants insist Zeyen has “no fundamental right to be on school property” and no right “to engage in threatening behavior on school grounds.” As the plaintiff is “the master of the complaint, ” Holmes Grp., Inc. v. Vornado Air Circulation Sys., Inc., 535 U.S. 826, 831 (2002), the Court must look past this red herring and analyze Zeyen's asserted liberty interest.

         The Supreme Court has explicitly characterized “the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control” as a “right[] guaranteed by the Constitution.” Pierce v. Soc'y of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus & Mary, 268 U.S. 510, 534-35 (1925). The Supreme Court has also said that “the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children . . . is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court.” Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 65 (2000). Based on these precedential cases, and many others, “it cannot now be doubted that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects the fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children.” Id. ...

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