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Isabella A v. Arrowhead Union High School District

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

July 16, 2018

ISABELLA A. a minor, by her parents David A. and Kiersten A., Plaintiff,


          J. P. Stadtmueller, U.S. District Judge

         Plaintiff is a student at Arrowhead Union High School (“Arrowhead”) and a member of the girls' soccer team. She brings this action against the school administration pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, complaining that she was denied due process and equal protection of the law when she was suspended from participating in four soccer games. The suspension was handed down after she hosted a party at her home during which her fellow students consumed alcohol. The action was originally filed in Waukesha County Circuit Court and was thereafter removed to this Court.

         Defendants, collectively referred to herein as “Arrowhead, ” have moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state any viable claims for relief. (Docket #15). The motion is fully briefed and, for the reasons stated below, it will be granted in part and the case will be remanded to state court.

         1. LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) allows a party to move to dismiss a complaint on the ground that it fails to state a viable claim for relief. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). To state a claim, a complaint must provide “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). In other words, the complaint must give “fair notice of what the. . .claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). The allegations must “plausibly suggest that the plaintiff has a right to relief, raising that possibility above a speculative level[.]” Kubiak v. City of Chi., 810 F.3d 476, 480 (7th Cir. 2016) (citation omitted). In reviewing the complaint, the Court is required to “accept as true all of the well-pleaded facts in the complaint and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff.” Id. at 480-81.

         2. RELEVANT FACTS

         The following facts are drawn from Plaintiff's complaint. Plaintiff is a sophomore at Arrowhead. As a member of the girls' soccer team, Plaintiff agreed to act in accordance with the school's Parent/Athlete & Co-Curricular Code of Conduct. The code of conduct warns that a student athlete will be suspended from participation in school athletics if, among other things, the student possesses, consumes, or sells alcohol or engages in “criminally related activity, ” including violations of state law or municipal or county ordinance. (Docket #1-1 at 22). The code provides that for a first offense, the student will be suspended from thirty percent of the games of the current season. Id. at 23.

         During the weekend of February 10, 2018, Plaintiff invited approximately a dozen fellow students over to her home for a party. Some of them brought alcohol and consumed it at the party. Plaintiff did not possess, provide, distribute, or consume any alcohol at the party, nor did she ask anyone to bring alcohol or know that it would be brought.

         Arrowhead administration officials became aware that underage drinking had occurred at Plaintiff's home. According to a transcript of a voicemail left for Plaintiff's father by school administrator Laura Myrah (“Myrah”), Arrowhead officials found photographs depicting Plaintiff posing with others at the party with beer cans visible in the background. Id. at 29. Additionally, interviews with other students who attended the party confirmed the presence of alcohol there. Id.[1]

         On February 22, Arrowhead Activities Director Ryan Mangan (“Mangan”) and Associate Principal Debra Paradowski met with Plaintiff to present their belief that she had hosted a drinking party and to gauge her response to the allegations. Plaintiff ultimately admitted that she hosted the party and that alcohol was present. As a result, Mangan informed Plaintiff that she was suspended from athletics and that he would contact her parents.[2]

         On February 23, Mangan notified Plaintiff and her parents in writing that she had been suspended from participating in thirty percent of the soccer games that season due to her violation of the Code of Conduct. That amounted to four games' worth of suspension. Mangan's letter stated that she had been suspended for “hosting and possessing alcohol the weekend of February 10.” Id. at 27. Upon receiving the letter, Plaintiff appealed the suspension in accordance with the Code of Conduct to the Appeal Committee.

         On March 20, the Appeal Committee held a hearing to consider Plaintiff's appeal. The school district and Plaintiff's father and her attorney presented evidence and testimony at the hearing. The Appeal Committee upheld the suspension. Plaintiff alleges that the decision was based on her hosting of the February 10 party rather than possession of alcohol, as the photographs discussed above were not submitted during that hearing.

         Plaintiff then appealed the Appeal Committee's decision to the Personnel Committee. Plaintiff had the opportunity to provide written submissions to the Personnel Committee. On March 28, the Personnel Committee met to consider Plaintiff's appeal of her suspension. Plaintiff was notified by letter on April 9 that the Personnel Committee upheld the suspension.

         After receiving the April 9 letter, Plaintiff's father called Myrah to demand further explanation for the suspension decision. She left him a voicemail in response, noting that the evidence they considered included the interview with Plaintiff, interviews with other student attendees, the photograph of the February 10 party, and another photograph showing Plaintiff and another student on a separate occasion pretending to drink wine from a wine bottle. Myrah explained that the suspension was appropriate both because of the code's prohibition on the possession of alcohol and its prohibition on criminal activity, which in this case was contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Further, said Myrah, the suspension could be justified because hosting a party where alcohol was consumed by minors was unbecoming a student athlete.

         3. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff advances three related constitutional claims. First, she alleges that Arrowhead's conduct during the suspension process violated her right to procedural due process under the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause. Second, applying principles of substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment, she alleges that she was arbitrarily deprived of her constitutionally protected interest in participation in high school athletics. Third, she claims that Arrowhead violated the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause when it suspended her but not the other, similarly situated students at the party. The Court will address each claim in turn. Finally, the Court will consider Plaintiff's remaining claim under Wisconsin state law for a writ of certiorari.

         3.1 Procedural Due Process

         Plaintiff's procedural due process claim arises under the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits state officials from depriving individuals of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Colon v. Schneider, 899 F.2d 660, 666 (7th Cir. 1990). Such a claim requires Plaintiff to establish “(1) a cognizable liberty or property interest; (2) the deprivation of that interest by some form of state action; and (3) the failure to employ constitutionally adequate procedures.” Dietchweiler by Dietchweiler v. Lucas, 827 F.3d 622, 627 (7th Cir. 2016). Plaintiff's case falters on the first element, as she enjoys no constitutionally protected property interest in participation in interscholastic athletics.

         To be entitled to due process, a plaintiff must have a liberty or property interest at stake; not every deprivation rises to the level of constitutional concern. Protectible interests “are not created by the Constitution. Rather, they are created and their dimensions defined by an independent source such as state statutes or rules entitling the citizen to certain benefits.” Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565, 572-73 (1975). Further, when examining these sources for qualifying interests, the Supreme Court has instructed that “a person clearly must have more than an abstract need or desire for [a benefit]. He must have more than a unilateral expectation of it. He must, instead, have a legitimate claim of entitlement to it.” Bd. of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 577 (1972). “A ‘legitimate claim of entitlement' is one that is legally enforceable-one based on statutes or regulations containing ‘explicitly mandatory ...

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