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Harpswell Coastal Academy v. Maine School Administrative District No 75 Topsham

United States District Court, D. Maine

November 16, 2015

HARPSWELL COASTAL ACADEMY et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
MAINE SCHOOL ADMINISTRATIVE DISTRICT NO 75 TOPSHAM, Defendant.

ORDER ON PLAINTIFFS’ MOTION FOR PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION

JOHN A. WOODCOCK, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

Concluding that substantial uncertainty exists over the meaning of a state law and that settling the state law question may well obviate the need to resolve a significant federal constitutional question, the Court dismisses the Plaintiffs’ Complaint and motion for preliminary injunction without prejudice under Pullman[1]abstention principles to allow the parties to proceed in state court.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Procedural History and Parties’ Arguments

On November 9, 2015, Harpswell Coastal Academy (HCA), [2] Wesley and Carrie Withers (the Withers), [3] and John Doe[4] initiated a lawsuit against Maine School Administrative District (MSAD) 75, [5] alleging violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 20-A M.R.S. § 2415. See Compl. (ECF No. 1) (Compl.). The Plaintiffs seek to enjoin MSAD 75 from enforcing the provisions of its recently adopted policy - “Charter School Students-Access to Public School Interscholastic and Extracurricular Activities” (JJIAAB Policy)[6] - that would prevent participation by John Doe on the Mt. Ararat eighth grade boys’ basketball team, or that would exclude any other HCA students from extracurricular or interscholastic activities. Id. at 9. Plaintiffs also seek a declaratory judgment that the JJIAAB Policy violates 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 20-A M.R.S. § 2415, that John Doe have the right to compete for a position on the Mt. Ararat eighth grade boys’ basketball team, and the awarding of damages in the sum to be determined at trial. Id.

On November 10, 2015, Plaintiffs filed a motion for a preliminary injunction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 65, seeking the Court to enjoin MSAD 75 pending trial and final determination of this case from enforcing the provisions of the JJIAAB Policy, or any related rules that would prevent participation by John Doe on the Mt. Ararat eighth grade boys’ basketball team, or that would exclude any other HCA students from extracurricular or interscholastic activities. Pls.’ Mot. for a Prelim. Inj., at 9-10 (ECF No. 5) (Prelim. Inj.). Additionally, the motion requests that John Doe be granted the immediate right to compete for a position on the Mt. Ararat eighth grade boys’ basketball team, and if MSAD 75 has already held a try-out for the eighth grade boys’ basketball team, MSAD be ordered to hold a new try-out so that John Doe may have the same opportunities as noncharter students. Id.

MSAD 75 filed an objection to the Plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction on November 12, 2015. Def.’s Obj. to Pls.’ Mot. for a Prelim. Inj. (ECF No. 14) (Def.’s Obj.). MSAD 75 argues that the Plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction should be denied for the main reason that they are unlikely to succeed on the merits, whether as a matter of federal equal protection principles or as a matter of state statutory interpretation. Id. at 9-10. Moreover, MSAD 75’s objection suggests the Complaint is only “cloaked in constitutional garb” and questions whether federal jurisdiction and standing exists for the Court to consider the § 1983 claim. Id. at 3, 5-6.

On November 12, 2015, the Court held a hearing on the Plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction. (ECF No. 17). During the presentations, the Court questioned whether federal jurisdiction exists for a § 1983 claim founded on “differential treatment for students based solely on which public school they choose to attend . . .”, and particularly their participation in interscholastic and extracurricular activities. See Compl. ¶ 42. At the hearing, the Court observed that if the § 1983 claim was not viable, the only remaining count would be a state law matter that would not provide a basis for federal jurisdiction.

Given the imminent announcement of the results of the Mt. Ararat eighth grade boys’ basketball team try-outs, the parties agreed to brief the issue of jurisdiction on an expedited basis. Additionally, the parties informed the Court that MSAD 75 agreed to hold off announcing the results of the basketball try-outs until 1:00 p.m. on Monday, November 16, 2015. Letter from Att’y David W. Bertoni to Hon. John A. Woodcock, Jr. (Nov. 13, 2015) (ECF No. 19). On November 13, 2015, the Plaintiffs filed a memorandum. Suppl. Br. on Juris. (ECF No. 20) (Pls.’ Suppl. Mem.). On November 14, 2015, the Defendant filed a responsive memorandum. Def.’s Suppl. Br. on Fed. Juris. (ECF No. 21) (Def.’s Suppl. Opp’n).

B. Factual Background

1. Legislative Background

In 2011, the Maine Legislature passed LD 1553, which established a charter school program in Maine, codified at 20-A M.R.S. § 2401 et seq. Compl. ¶ 8. HCA applied for and received a charter contract with the Maine Charter School Commission in 2013, and opened that fall. Id. ¶ 9. Pursuant to 20-A M.R.S.A. § 2415(2), students at a charter school may participate in extracurricular and interscholastic activities in their home school district if the activity is not offered by the charter school. Id. ¶ 10. Under this statute, superintendents are permitted to deny charter students’ applications if the charter school provides the same extracurricular activity or “if the noncharter public school does not have the capacity to provide the public charter school student with the opportunity to participate in the extracurricular or interscholastic activity.”[7] Id. ¶ 11.

2. MSAD 75 Charter School Student Policy

MSAD 75 is charged with responsibility for the care, management, and control of all public school business within its jurisdiction, which includes administration of the athletic program at all of the schools within MSAD 75, including Mt. Ararat Middle School. Id. ¶ 12. On July 9, 2015, MSAD 75’s school board adopted a policy titled “CHARTER SCHOOL STUDENTS-ACCESS TO PUBLIC SCHOOL INTERSCHOLASTIC AND EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES.”[8] Id. ¶ 13. One of the provisions of this policy is a definition of “capacity, ” stating: “[t]he school does not have capacity to provide a charter school student the opportunity to participate in an extracurricular activity when all available slots or positions for the activity are taken by regularly-enrolled students.” Id. ¶ 14; JJIAAB Policy at 2.

On September 2, 2015, the Acting Commissioner of the Department of Education (DOE) sent a formal letter to Brad Smith, Superintendent of MSAD 75, regarding the DOE’s position on MSAD 75’s JJIAAB Policy. Id. ¶ 21; Compl. Attach. 2 Letter to Superintendent Smith (ECF No. 1) (DOE Letter). Acting Commissioner Desjardins informed MSAD 75 that the DOE’s interpretation of “capacity” is “that all public charter school students who wish to take part in these activities should have an equal opportunity to do so. For example, in the case of a baseball player, the decision as to whether the student is chosen for the team should be based solely on their ability to play baseball in comparison to others trying out.” Compl. ¶ 22; DOE Letter at 1. Acting Commissioner Desjardins also informed MSAD 75 at that time that their policy “would deny [charter school students] the right to participate in extracurricular activities that have been funded through the school district. This is true despite the fact that their family has helped fund that school district by contributing a share of local and state taxes equal to that of other families in the district.” Compl. ¶ 23; DOE Letter at 2. The letter concluded that “to not allow this [charter school] student a fair and equal opportunity to participate in these activities would be discriminatory toward that student based on their choice of public school.” Compl. ¶ 24; DOE Letter at 2.

3. Enforcement of MSAD 75 Charter School Student Policy against John Doe

John Doe was a student of MSAD 75 until he and his parents made the choice for him to attend HCA when it opened in 2012. Compl. ¶ 27. Because playing basketball is important to Doe, he and his parents investigated the law regarding charter school students’ opportunities to play sports in their home district, before Doe chose to attend HCA. Id. ¶ 28. HCA does not have a basketball team Doe could play on. Id. ¶ 31. However, its students have previously participated in school sports, and have specifically participated in school sports operated by MSAD 75, including Mt. Ararat Middle School. Prelim. Inj. at 2 (citing Prelim. Inj. Attach 2 D’Anieri Affidavit ¶¶ 3-6 (ECF No. 5) (D’Anieri Aff.)). During the last school year, 2014-2015, before MSAD 75’s JJIAAB Policy was adopted, John Doe was in seventh grade at HCA and tried out for the Mt. Ararat seventh grade boys’ basketball team at MSAD 75. Compl. ¶ 29. Doe survived two rounds of cuts and made the Mt. Ararat seventh grade boys’ basketball team. Id. ¶ 30.

This winter, sixteen boys studying at Mt. Ararat have signed up to try-out for thirteen available spots on the eighth grade team. Def.’s Obj. at 8; Smith Aff. ¶ 12. The Withers gave notice to Mt. Ararat that their son wanted to try-out for the team. Def.’s Obj. at 8; Smith Aff. ¶ 11. Pursuant to the JJIAAB Policy, after learning of the number of MSAD 75 and home school students who had signed-up for the eighth grade boys’ basketball team try-outs, Superintendent Smith, after first speaking to Ms. Withers on November 6, 2015, sent a confirming letter notifying the Withers that Mt. Ararat Middle School did not have sufficient capacity to accommodate students from other schools. Def.’s Obj. at 8; Smith Aff. ¶¶ 12-14. The Plaintiffs assert that on information and belief, Doe competed against most, if not all, of the same boys last year, and he was awarded a spot on the team. Compl. ΒΆ 37. The Plaintiffs also contend that, after another year of experience with this team, it ...


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