United States District Court, N.D. New York
DENNIS BRADFORD, Individually and as the Natural Parent of C.B., and Infant; and JUDY LEE BRADFORD, Individually and as the Natural Parent of C.B., and Infant, Plaintiffs,
NORWICH CITY SCH. DIST.; and GERARD O'SULLIVAN, Superintendent, Defendants
For Plaintiffs: RONALD R. BENJAMIN, ESQ., OF COUNSEL, LAW OFFICE OF RONALD R. BENJAMIN, Binghamton, NY.
For Defendants: FRANK W. MILLER, ESQ., BRYAN N. GEORGIADY, ESQ., OF COUNSEL, LAW FIRM OF FRANK W. MILLER, East Syracuse, NY.
DECISION and ORDER
Hon. Glenn T. Suddaby, United States District Judge.
Currently before the Court, in this civil rights action filed by Dennis and Judy Lee Bradford (" Plaintiffs" ) against the Norwich City School District and its superintendent (" Defendants" ), is Defendants' motion for summary judgment. (Dkt. No. 13.) For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motion is granted.
I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND
A. Plaintiffs' Complaint
In their Complaint, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants wrongfully suspended their son C.B., and retained findings in school records that he violated the school code of conduct, based on a text-message conversation he had with another student regarding a third student while outside of school on November 13, 2012. (Dkt. No. 1, at ¶ ¶ 1-26 [Plfs.' Compl.].) Generally, based on these factual allegations, Plaintiffs assert two claims against Defendants: (1) a claim that Defendants infringed on C.B.'s right of free speech under the First Amendment ; and (2) a claim that Defendants denied Plaintiffs their due process
right under the Fourteenth Amendment to raise their child as they see fit. ( Id. at ¶ ¶ 27-32.) As relief, Plaintiffs request (a) an Order directing Defendants to rescind the decision suspending C.B. and expunge all records relating to the suspension from all records maintained, (b) an award of reasonable attorneys' fees, and (c) other and further relief as the Court deems just and proper under the circumstances. ( Id. at " Wherefore" Section.)
B. Parties' Arguments on Defendants' Motion
1. Defendants' Memorandum of Law in Chief
Generally, in their memorandum of law in chief, Defendants assert two arguments: (1) Plaintiffs' First Amendment claim should be dismissed because (a) under Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 89 S.Ct. 733, 21 L.Ed.2d 731 (1969), and Second Circuit precedent applying it, school officials are not per se barred from disciplining a student for off-campus speech that was likely to reach school officials, and cause distress inside the schoolhouse, and (b) here, it is undisputed that C.B.'s dissemination of the offensive text-message conversation was punishable (under the standard set forth in Tinker and the Second Circuit precedent) in that it mentioned or threatened a violent act against a schoolhouse connection, and C.B.'s decision to forward it to E.K. created a reasonably foreseeable risk of a material and substantial disruption at school (through E.K.'s friend, M.Y., seeing it and reporting it to school officials); and (2) Plaintiffs' Fourteenth Amendment claim should be dismissed because it is undisputed that (a) the District never attempted to control the home-based discipline of C.B. or prevent C.B.'s parents from imposing their own private punishments, and (b) C.B.'s mother testified at her deposition that the District's school-based discipline did not interfere with her ability to impose her own home-based punishment upon C.B. (Dkt. No. 13, Attach. 6 [Defs.' Memo. of Law in Chief].)
2. Plaintiffs' Opposition Memorandum of Law
Generally, in their opposition memorandum of law, Plaintiffs assert two arguments: (1) the District is unable to satisfy the first prong of the Tinker test, because it could not reasonably have been foreseen by C.B. that his private out-of-school text-message conversation with N.L. would come to the attention of school officials, as evidenced by the fortuitous manner in which the speech was eventually disclosed to school officials; and (2) in any event, the District is unable to satisfy the second prong of the Tinker test, because the disruption at school was minor in nature and not of a type that would materially and substantially interfere with the work and discipline of the school (whose officials do not have limitless discretion to apply their own notions of decency). (Dkt. No. 14 [Plfs.' Opp'n Memo. of Law].)
3. Defendants' Reply Memorandum of Law
Generally, in their reply memorandum of law, Defendants assert three arguments: (1) the District has satisfied the first prong of the Tinker test, because (a) Plaintiffs' interpretation of the term " reasonable foreseeability" overly narrow, (b) C.B. admitted that his conversation with N.L. fantasized about hurting M.Y., that he forwarded that conversation to E.K., and that he knew M.Y. had a history of taking E.K.'s cell phone during lunch period at school, and (c) it was thus reasonably foreseeable that M.Y. might see C.B.'s threatening text messages during one of the occasions where she had control of E.K.'s cell phone and that, once M.Y. became aware of the threatening text messages
about her, she would report them to a school official; (2) the District has satisfied the second prong of the Tinker test, because the conversation's description of a series of violent acts (including references to physical assaults and the image of a gun) caused genuine concerned amount M.Y. and all the other adults who read it, and was thus sufficient to justify discipline under Cuff ex rel v. B.C. v. Valley Cent. Sch. Dist., 677 F.3d 109 (2d Cir. 2012) (and Plaintiffs' quotations from Cuff regarding disruptive effects of speech are from the dissenting opinion and do not represent the Second Circuit's prevailing precedent regarding freedom of student speech); and (3) Plaintiffs did not oppose dismissal of their Fourteenth Amendment parental-rights claim and have thus abandoned that claim. (Dkt. No. 16 [Defs.' Reply Memo. of Law].)
C. Statement of Undisputed Material Facts
Unless otherwise followed by citations to the record, the following material facts have been asserted and supported by Defendants in their Local Rule 7.1 Statement of Undisputed Material Facts, and either admitted or denied without a supporting record citation by Plaintiffs in their Local Rule 7.1 Response. ( Compare Dkt. No. 13, Attach. 1 [Defs.' Rule 7.1 Statement] with Dkt. No. 14, Attach. 2 [Plfs.' Rule 7.1 Response].)
1. On the afternoon of Friday, November 16, 2012, a group of several students sat down in teacher Sarah Dawn Case's classroom in Norwich High School for a study hall period.
2. Ms. Case began overhearing one student, a ninth grade girl named M.Y., speaking with a small group of other girls, including one girl she knew to be M.Y.'s good friend. M.Y. had her cell phone and appeared to be reading text messages that other students had written about her.
3. To Ms. Case, M.Y. appeared visibly upset. She heard M.Y. say something to the other girls.
4. Ms. Case approached M.Y. and inquired about what she was talking about and why she was so upset.
5. M.Y. showed Ms. Case her cell phone and let Ms. Case read the text messages she had been discussing. The messages consisted of the following conversation between two other students, C.B. and N.L., regarding M.Y., on the evening of Tuesday, November 13, 2012:
N.L.: Who is this [prior message] about'
C.B.: I think you know ahahahhaahhaah
C.B.: Lol she favorited it
N.L.: Yeah I know. I saw it!
C.B.: Ahahaha I died laughing
N.L.: Me too.. Not really but she is annoyinggg
C.B.: lk i just wanna her That was kinda harsh
N.L.: Yeah. But it alright: p I get ...