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Dietchweiler v. Lucas

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

June 28, 2016

Noah Dietchweiler, by Michael Dietchweiler, his father and next friend, and Ann Dietchweiler, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
Steve Lucas, in his official and individual capacities, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued November 9, 2015

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 13 CV 2062 - Harold A. Baker, Judge.

          Before WOOD, Chief Judge, ROVNER, Circuit Judge, and SHAH, District Judge. [*]

          PER CURIAM.

         After he was temporarily suspended from Watseka Community High School for allegedly consuming or possessing drugs, Noah Dietchweiler through his parents Michael[1] and Ann Dietchweiler sued Iroquois County Community Unit School District 9, school administrators Steve Lucas, James Bunting, and Kenneth Lee as well as the entire school board. The Dietchweilers' suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleged primarily that the defendants violated Noah's due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. They also advanced state law claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, slander, and violations of the Illinois School Code, 105 ILCS 5/10-22.6, which provides procedures for suspending and expelling students. The district court granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment on the Dietchweilers' due process claim and dismissed the state law claims without prejudice. The Dietchweilers appeal, and we affirm.

         I.

         On January 25, 2013, Noah Dietchweiler was one of several students suspended from Watseka High School in Iroquois County, Illinois, based on an allegation that another student, M. M., was distributing prescription drugs at school. Shortly after lunch that day, a student came to Steve Lucas, the dean of students, to report that M.M. had been giving pills to another student in the cafeteria. Mr. Lucas immediately told the principal, James Bunting, what he had heard. The two of them began their investigation of the allegation by interviewing M.M. in the office.

         When Mr. Bunting and Mr. Lucas questioned M.M., he eventually admitted he had been distributing pills to fellow students. A search of M.M. revealed two prescription Ativan pills hidden in his sock. Ativan is the brand name for Lorazepam, an anti-anxiety drug belonging to the class of drugs known as benzodiazepines, which affect the central nervous system. See U.S. Nat'l Library of Med., PubMed Health, Lorazepam, (Mar. 1, 2016), http://ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMHT0001078 (last visited May 26, 2016). M.M. also had with him a piece of paper listing the names of four other Watseka students with dollar amounts (ranging from $4 to $10) listed to the side of their names; Noah's name appeared on the list with $10 written next to it. M.M. explained that the listed students were individuals to whom he had sold Ativan pills. He also provided a written statement admitting that he had "given the pills to" seven Watseka students, one of whom was Noah. At that point, M.M.'s grandmother (his legal guardian) was called to the school. M.M. was given a written suspension notice and went home with his grandmother.

         Mr. Lucas and Mr. Bunting then proceeded to interview all seven students who were identified in M.M.'s written statement. According to Noah, whose version of the events we credit at this stage of the proceedings, Mr. Lucas then came into his classroom and motioned for Noah to accompany him to the office. Mr. Lucas instructed Noah to sit down outside of Mr. Bunting's office and not to leave or speak to anyone while he waited. After approximately thirty minutes, Mr. Bunting came and took Noah across the hall to Mr. Lucas's office. Mr. Lucas said to Noah something along the lines of, "I think you know why you are here." Noah denied having any idea of what was going on. Mr. Lucas then asked Noah whether he knew there were drugs being sold at Watseka. When Noah again denied knowing anything about it, Mr. Bunting told Noah he could choose between a ten-day suspension for admitting to taking the drugs or expulsion if he denied involvement. At that point Noah said simply, "Whatever."

         The administrators then placed a suspension form on the desk in front of Noah and asked him to contact his parents. Noah's mother Ann, who by that time was waiting out in front of the school to pick Noah up, was then called. When she got to the office and Mr. Bunting explained why Noah was there, she requested that they call Noah's father, Michael Dietchweiler, who was an attorney. After putting Michael on speaker phone so that everyone present in the room (Mr. Bunting, Mr. Lucas, Ann, and Noah) could hear, Mr. Lucas and Mr. Bunting explained to Michael that Noah was being suspended for ten days for possession and use of illegal drugs. After the brief conversation on speaker phone concluded, Noah signed the suspension notice, shook hands with Mr. Lucas and Mr. Bunting, collected his things and left the school with his mother. The notice Noah signed listed the date and stated that Noah was being suspended for "possession of drugs" and below that "consumption of drugs." It informed Noah that he could return to school on Monday, February 11, and could make up any work missed while suspended. Noah signed, acknowledging that he had attended a "student suspension hearing" with Mr. Lucas and been afforded an opportunity to present a defense to explain the circumstances of his actions "and/or prove innocence."

         Later that evening at home, Noah denied any involvement in the situation with M.M. and the Ativan. Noah's father arranged for him to take a drug test that same night through a physician friend who met them at the local hospital. The results of the supervised drug test were negative for the presence of any drugs, including benzodiazepines. Noah's father e-mailed Mr. Bunting over the weekend with the drug test results and also went to the school Monday morning to present him with the results. Mr. Bunting was uninterested, and told Noah's father that he could follow the procedures for an appeal of the suspension if he wished.

         Noah and his parents retained counsel and appealed his suspension. At a suspension review hearing, see 105 ILCS 5/10-22.6(b), on February 5, 2013, the school board voted unanimously to uphold Noah's suspension. At the hearing, Mr. Lucas and Mr. Bunting testified that when they interviewed Noah on January 25th, they told him that they had already spoken with other students and he needed to be honest with them to avoid more stringent punishment. According to both administrators, Noah then admitted that M.M. had given him pills the previous day (January 24th). Mr. Lucas and Mr. Bunting recounted that Noah believed the pills were medication for Attention Deficit Disorder and would help him focus or stay awake. According to their account, Noah also admitted that before the present incident, he had done some drugs but had quit after attending a Christian camp earlier that month.

         Noah testified consistent with his later deposition testimony that after they had called him to the office, he denied knowing about drugs at school, and when faced with the choice of confessing or being expelled he said simply, "Whatever." Both of the Dietchweilers testified. Ann recounted arriving in the office and having Mr. Lucas or Mr. Bunting tell her that Noah had failed to report seeing another student with drugs at school, after which she asked to call Michael. He testified that during the conversation on speaker phone, Mr. Lucas and Mr. Bunting told him that Noah had taken drugs and was being suspended. The Dietchweilers also presented the negative results of Noah's drug test. Finally, the Dietchweilers explained that much of their defense had been prepared with an eye to the school's allegation that Noah took drugs on the day he was suspended, Friday, January 25th, and not the previous day as the administrators were claiming at the hearing. After deliberation in a closed executive session, the board concluded that Noah had violated school rules by possessing, not consuming, drugs at school and ratified his ten-day suspension.

         Although Noah could have made up any schoolwork missed as a result of the suspension, he chose not to return to Watseka High School. Prior to the suspension he had been in the process of transferring to Culver Military Academy. After he was suspended, he completed his sophomore year through an online school and began at Culver Military Academy that fall. He repeated his sophomore year because Culver Military Academy did not credit the online schooling Noah did to complete his sophomore year.

         Noah, through his parents Michael and Ann, sued the school district, Mr. Lucas and Mr. Bunting, the school superintendent Kenneth Lee, and the Iroquois County District 9 school board members, Don Becker, Brenna Johnson, Crystal Blair, Bob Burd, Kirk McTaggert, and Dee Schippert. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants on Noah's due process claim under § 1983 after concluding that under the Dietchweilers' version of events, Noah received the minimal due process safeguards constitutionally required for a school suspension of ten days or less. See Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565 (1975). The court declined ...


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