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Gonzales v. Burley High School

United States District Court, D. Idaho

July 26, 2019

JORGE GONZALES on behalf of his minor child A.G.; TODD MERRELL on behalf of his minor child A.M.; MANUEL MORALES and VERONICA MORALES on behalf of their minor child Z.M.; HENRY MUNOZ and MISTY MUNOZ on behalf of their minor child I.M.; ERASMO SALAZAR and ELLEN SALAZAR on behalf of their minor children C.S. and S.S.; ROBERT SANCHEZ and TIFFINY SANCHEZ on behalf of their minor child I.S.; SILVIA OCHOA on behalf of her minor child D.O.; SONIA RAMIREZ on behalf of her minor child V.R., Plaintiffs,
v.
BURLEY HIGH SCHOOL; CASSIA JOINT SCHOOL DISTRICT 151; GAYLEN SMYER in his official and individual capacity; SANDRA MILLER in her official and individual capacity; LEVI POWER in his official and individual capacity; and DOES I-X, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          David C. Nye Chief U.S. District Court Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This case involves First Amendment retaliation claims for disciplinary actions taken against plaintiff members of the Burley High School (“BHS”) cheer team (“Plaintiffs”). Plaintiffs engaged in a peaceful “sit-in” during an early morning cheer practice to protest bullying and favoritism by their cheer coach. Plaintiffs were ultimately suspended from the cheer team for three weeks as a punishment and had to sign a list of stipulations agreeing to additional punishment to be let back on the squad. Although Plaintiffs signed the stipulations, they each also reserved their right to engage in the school district's grievance process. In response, the BHS administration dismissed Plaintiffs from the cheerleading team for the rest of the school year.

         Plaintiffs thereafter filed the instant suit, alleging two claims of retaliation in violation of the First Amendment. Plaintiffs' first claim for relief is for the retaliation they experienced for initiating the sit-in, while Plaintiffs' second claim for relief is for the retaliation they purportedly suffered as a result of reserving their rights to engage in the school district's grievance process. Defendants BHS, Cassia Joint School District 151, Superintendent Gaylen Smyer, Assistant Superintendent Sandra Miller, and Principal Levi Power (collectively referred to hereinafter as “Defendants”) seek summary dismissal of both of Plaintiffs' claims. Plaintiffs filed a motion for partial summary judgment, seeking summary adjudication of their claim of retaliation for reserving their rights to grieve the school district's decision. On June 5, 2019, the Court held oral argument on both motions. For the reasons stated herein, the Court DENIES Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment and GRANTS Plaintiffs' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment.

         II. BACKGROUND[1]

         The BHS cheer team won the state championships during the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 school years under head coach Heidi Smith. Eight of the nine plaintiff cheerleaders were on at least one of the state championship teams. In the spring of 2017, the BHS administration hired a new coach, Laine Mansfield, as the head coach of the cheer team. Mansfield had previously served for a portion of a year as an assistant junior high cheer coach.

         In April 2017, Mansfield conducted tryouts for the 2017-2018 BHS cheer team. Mansfield's temperament and fairness immediately concerned Plaintiffs. For instance, Victoria Aragon, an incoming senior who had been a member of both state championship cheer teams, did not make the squad for her senior year. Due to a personal dispute with Aragon, Mansfield prohibited Plaintiffs from communicating with, associating with, or otherwise talking about Aragon while at cheerleading practice or in the presence of Mansfield. Mansfield verbally reprimanded Plaintiffs if she observed them communicating or associating with Aragon.

         Mansfield also demonstrably favored the younger members of the cheer team she had coached as an assistant coach of the junior high team, including her own daughter. For Plaintiffs, Mansfield enforced mandatory attendance for practices and events, and made no exceptions for conflicting school-related activities, family functions, or any other non-emergency scheduling conflict. If Plaintiffs missed a single practice, they were excluded from practices and important games and events during the week the practice was missed. Mansfield also punished one Plaintiff, A.G., by excluding her from participating in a cheer parade when she missed practice to attend a previously scheduled school yearbook camp. This punishment was given even though-several months prior- Mansfield had excused A.G. from attending practice that day so she could attend the yearbook camp. However, Mansfield rescheduled the entire team's practice when her own daughter or other junior members of the team had a conflict.

         Mansfield also routinely bullied Plaintiffs by degrading their cheerleading abilities and appearance. Mansfield told Plaintiffs they “sucked and that she had no idea how [they] ever won a state title, ” claimed they looked “trashy and gross, ” criticized Plaintiffs during practice by stating they “looked really dumb, ugly or sloppy, ” and talked negatively about certain Plaintiffs to other members of the team, including describing one Plaintiff as “the most loud, obnoxious person she'd ever met” and complaining how “lazy” another Plaintiff was. Dkt. 29-3, Ex. 2, at 15, 24, 33, 34.

         Finally, Mansfield demonstrated a lack of basic knowledge of, or concern for, the safety requirements cheer coaches are required to observe. For example, flyers- cheerleaders who are lifted or thrown into the air-were repeatedly dropped on the floor during practice. Although such falls can cause paralysis or even death, Mansfield would tell the flyers to “brush it off, suck it up, and do it right next time” when they were dropped. Id. at 28. Yet Mansfield would not teach the girls the appropriate way to do the stunt or ensure they had the basics down before they again attempted dangerous acrobatics. Id. Mansfield also put inexperienced cheerleaders together in groups, gave the squad no direction on how to safely stunt, paired stunt groups incorrectly based on their size, risking serious injury, and tried to make the cheerleaders attempt illegal stunts. Id.

         Plaintiffs and their parents voiced numerous complaints to the BHS administration about Mansfield's behavior and attended meetings with BHS and Cassia Joint School District administrators. In response to such complaints, the BHS administration put Mansfield on a Performance Improvement Plan, requiring her to, among other things, “keep her communication positive” with members of the cheer team, refrain from texting cheerleaders one on one, refrain from discussing sensitive issues about the cheerleaders with others, and to be “consistent and fair with all girls in the cheer program[.]”[2] Dkt. 26-10, Ex. 5, at 18:1-25:5. When Mansfield's behavior did not improve, Plaintiffs organized a sit-in during their early morning practice on September 29, 2017, to protest Mansfield's “bullying, favoritism, and incompetence.” Dkt. 26-1, at 2.

         At approximately 8:10 a.m. on the day of the protest, fourteen BHS cheerleaders (nine of whom are plaintiffs in this suit), entered the BHS gym at the end of one of their before-school practices. The protesting cheerleaders wore their regular school clothes (rather than their designated practice uniforms) and sat on the bleachers for approximately two minutes until they were asked to leave by BHS Athletic Director Gordon Kerbs. When asked to leave the gym, one of the Plaintiffs argued with Kerbs and Assistant Principal Andrew Wray, stating the cheerleaders had a right to peacefully protest. However, all of the girls ultimately left the gym and went to the library with Kerbs and Wray.

         At the end of the day on September 29, 2017, Plaintiffs were informed that they were suspended from the cheerleading team for the next week. On October 5, 2017, the BHS Principals' Office gave each Plaintiff a list of additional punishments to which Plaintiffs and their parents were required to agree in order for Plaintiffs to be allowed back on the cheerleading team. The October 5, 2017, letter provided:

         In order to rejoin the cheer squad at [BHS] each of the following must take place:

-You will serve a suspension from competing in events/games until October 23, 2017, you will be allowed and expected to attend all practices starting Monday, October 9[, ] 2017. You will be expected to attend and sit in warm up gear with the coaches during any games/events for the remainder of the suspension starting Monday, October 9[, ] 2017.
-You will vocally address the entire cheer squad and coaches Monday morning, October 9[, ] 2017 with a sincere apology.
-You will agree to participate in a 4-hour service project to be completed on a Saturday before October 23, 2017. The date will be given to you by the coaches.
-By October 23, 2017 you will write a one-page paper explaining what you have learned about yourself through this experience and will come up with one team building activity/idea and present that in your paper to the coaches.
-You will be expected to follow the rules in the cheer handbook, failure to follow the rules will result in dismissal from the squad.
-You will have and maintain a positive attitude and work ethic with all aspects of the cheer squad moving forward.
-Any negative texts/social media posts about any member of the cheer squad, cheer coaching staff or [BHS] will result in dismissal from the team.
-Any parent boosters [sic] activity must be cleared through the coaches.
-This letter must be signed by the cheerleader and a parent/guardian and hand delivered [to BHS administration] ¶ 3:30 PM on Friday October 6, 2017. Failure to do so will result in dismissal from the cheer squad.

Dkt. 25-8, Ex. S.

         Each of the Plaintiffs and their parents returned signed stipulation agreements to the BHS administration by October 6, 2017. However, Plaintiffs also attached a one-sentence letter stating, “I/We are signing this but we want to reserve our right to be afforded our rights in the districts [sic] grievance process[.]” Id.

         On October 7, 2017, Cassia School District Superintendent Gaylen Smyer (“Superintendent Smyer”) and Assistant Superintendent Sandra Miller (“Assistant Superintendent Miller”) sent each Plaintiff a letter dismissing them from the cheer team for the 2017-2018 school year. The dismissal letter stated, in part:

It is clear to district level administration that while the stipulation agreements were returned the presence of the additional page or addendum suggests a continued conflict on the part of the cheer team, the individual student and parents with the coach and school administration. Such an expression is interpreted to be a desire to utilize the grievance process as opposed to the solution propounded by the administration. It is the belief of the school superintendent and the assistant superintendent [that] the school and the cheer team would be best served by revoking the membership of [each Plaintiff] on the [BHS] cheer team effective Monday, October 9, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

         Dkt. 25-8, Ex. T. Cheerleaders who participated in the sit-in and signed the stipulation letter, but who did not reserve their right to engage in the school district's grievance process, were allowed back on the cheer team.

         Plaintiffs thereafter filed the instant suit alleging two counts of retaliation in violation of the First Amendment under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiffs' first claim for relief alleges that the Defendants unlawfully retaliated against Plaintiffs by imposing a three- week suspension and additional punishments in response to Plaintiffs engaging in their constitutionally protected right to peacefully protest (hereinafter “Claim One”). Plaintiffs' second claim for relief alleges Defendants unlawfully retaliated against Plaintiffs by dismissing them from the cheerleading team for reserving their rights to engage in the school district's grievance process (hereinafter “Claim Two”).

         On January 11, 2019, Defendants and Plaintiffs filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Defendants seek summary judgment with respect to both of Plaintiffs' First Amendment retaliation claims. Plaintiffs contend a genuine issue of disputed material fact precludes summary judgment on Claim One, but suggest the undisputed facts establish they are entitled to summary judgment on Claim Two.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         Motions for summary judgment are governed by Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 56 provides that judgment shall be granted if the movant shows there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). According to Rule 56, an issue must be both “material” and “genuine” to preclude entry of summary judgment. Id. An issue is “material” if it affects the outcome of the litigation. Hahn v. Sargent, 523 F.2d 461, 464 (1st Cir. 1975). That is, a material fact is one that is relevant to an element of a claim or defense which might affect the outcome of the suit. The materiality of a fact is thus determined by the substantive law governing the claim or defense. T.W. Elec. Serv., Inc. v. Pac. Elec. Contractors Ass'n, 809 F.2d 626, 630 (9th Cir. 1987) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (1986)). Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts will not preclude a grant of summary judgment. Id.

         On the other hand, an issue is “genuine” when there is “sufficient evidence supporting the claimed factual dispute . . . to require a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial.” Hahn, 523 F.2d at 464 (quoting First Nat'l Bank of Arizona v. Cities Serv. Co., 391 U.S. 253, 289 (1968)). Because factual disputes are to be decided at trial, in ruling on summary judgment motions, the Court does not resolve conflicting evidence with respect to disputed material facts, nor does it make credibility determinations. T.W. Elec. Serv., Inc., 809 F.2d at 630. Moreover, all inferences must be drawn in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id. at 631.

         Finally, where, as here, the parties both move for summary judgment, the Court will consider each motion on its own merits. Fair Housing Council of Riverside Cty. v. Riverside Two, 249 F.3d 1132, 1136 (9th Cir. 2001). In ruling on cross-motions, the Court will consider the entirety of each party's evidentiary submission, regardless of which motion (or opposition) the evidence accompanied. Id. at 1136-37.

         IV. ...


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