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Doe v. Sevier County

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville Division

July 17, 2017

JOHN DOE #1, by and through his next friend, SUSAN LEE, and JOHN DOE #2, by and through his next friend, BILLY KING, Plaintiffs,
SEVIER COUNTY, TENNESSEE, SEVIER COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, and Superintendent DR. JACK PARTON in his official capacity, Defendants.


          Leon Jordan United States District Judge.

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiffs' Motion for Preliminary Injunction [doc. 4], Plaintiffs' Brief in Support of the Motion [doc. 5], Defendants' Response [doc. 9], and Plaintiffs' Reply [doc. 12]. For the reasons herein, the Court will deny the motion.

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs John Doe #1 and John Doe #2 (“John Does”) are minors and former students at Sevier County High School in Sevierville, Tennessee, where they were members of the school's basketball team. [Lee Aff., doc. 12-1, ¶¶ 2-3; King Aff., doc. 12-2, ¶¶ 2-3]. Last year, while John Does were in their junior year, they were arrested, jailed, and charged with aggravated rape. [Lee Aff. ¶¶ 2-3; King Aff. ¶¶ 2-3]. “[A]s a condition of bond, ” they “[were] restrained from attending high school at Sevier County High School.” [Lee Aff. ¶ 3; King Aff. ¶ 3]. John Does and the District Attorney's Office, however, reached an eventual settlement agreement, which the Sevier County Juvenile Court announced in open court and which resolved the charges against them. [First Hr'g Tr., doc. 47, at 8:18-25 9:1-23; Second Hr'g Tr., doc. 69, 18:8-19]. Since then, John Does have had the charges expunged from their juvenile records, [Chief Deputy Clerk Letter No. 1, doc. 1-5, at 1; Chief Deputy Clerk Letter No. 2, doc. 1-6, at 1], [1] and attempted to re-enroll in Sevier County High School on three separate occasions, [Second Hr'g Tr. at 8:23-25; 9:1-5]. The Sevier County School Board (“School Board”), however, denied them the opportunity to re-enroll in Sevier County High School, based on a concern that their settlement agreement or the Sevier County Juvenile Court had barred them from returning to that specific school. [Id.]. The School Board instead offered them enrollment in any one of their four other high schools in Sevier County. [Id. at 61:19-25; 62:1-5].

         John Does then brought this action against Sevier County, the School Board, and Superintendent Dr. Jack Parton (“Dr. Parton”), alleging that they violated 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by abridging their rights under the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. [Compl., doc. 1-1, ¶ 18].[2] John Does also contemporaneously filed a motion for a preliminary injunction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 65, alleging that they “have invested themselves tremendously in the athletic program at Sevier County High School, ” that they are “considered to [be] physically gifted, highly talented within their skill set for their particular sport, ” and that “transferring to any other school will cause irreparable harm.” [Compl. ¶¶ 9-10; see Mot. for Preliminary Inj., doc. 4, at 1]. Specifically, they claim that “opportunities that were available to them for scholarships and to compete collegiately have been damaged and/or are rapidly diminishing” because they have been unable to attend Sevier County High School and participate in its basketball program. [Compl. ¶ 20]. Within days of John Does' filing of this action, the School Board proceeded to the Sevier County Juvenile Court, which, at the School Board's request, memorialized the terms of John Does' settlement agreements in written Orders. [See Juvenile Records, doc. 9-1, at 1-7]. The School Board has since filed these Orders with this Court, and they state:

         Pursuant to an agreement announced in Court on a separate case, and a petition to this Court for entry of an Order memorializing the agreement, the following is ORDERED that:

1. That the respondent[s] . . . shall have no contact, directly or indirectly, with [the victim], a minor whose identity is known to the parties, the Court and the Sevier County School System.
2. No contact means respondent[s] shall not appear at any location where [they] know[] [the victim] will be present.
3. Should inadvertent contact occur, the burden is on the respondent[s] to cease the contact.
4. Respondent[s] shall not re-enroll in Sevier County High School.

[Id. at 3-4, 6-7].

         Shortly after John Does brought this action, this Court scheduled an evidentiary hearing, at which the parties presented evidence and argument as to the propriety of a preliminary injunction. [Order, doc. 13, at 1; First Hr'g Tr. at 1-59]. A few weeks later, the Court held a second evidentiary hearing, to accommodate John Does' request to present additional evidence in support of a preliminary injunction. [Order, doc. 54, at 1; Second Hr'g Tr. at 1-99]. The Court received testimony from several witnesses, including John Doe #1; John Doe #2; John Doe #1's father; John Doe #2's father; Assistant District Attorney Rolfe A. Straussfogel; Jackie Renee Brown, who is John Does' homebound instructor; and Dr. Debra Ann Cline (“Dr. Cline”), who is the assistant superintendent and director of curriculum and instruction for the Sevier County School System.

         During the hearings, John Doe #1's father described his son as “not a star player” but a “good player” who “stand[s] out” because of his “demeanor” and “supportive role[]” with the team. [First Hr'g Tr. at 25:25; 26:1-3; 27:2-4]. John Doe #2's father testified that his son currently has no athletic scholarship offers from any collegiate institution. [Second Hr'g Tr. at 25:3-6]. Even so, John Does explained that they want to return to Sevier County High School so they can continue to play for their former basketball coach, Ken Wright (“Coach Wright”), whom they consider to be their “ticket” to college. [Id. at 6:13-17; 47:9-16; 50:13-16]. John Does presented testimony to show that Coach Wright has “placed folks in the college ranks” and “may have sent [some]one to the NBA.” [Id. at 31:2-5; 50:21-22]. Partly because of their relationship with and esteem for Coach Wright, John Does have declined the School Board's invitation to enroll in one of Sevier County's four other high schools, all of which have school-sponsored basketball teams. [Id. at 61:19-25; 62:1-5; 72:5-7; 88:15-20]. In light of this record evidence, and the record evidence as a whole up to this point, the Court will now address John Does' request for a preliminary injunction.

         II. Preliminary Injunction

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 65, the purpose of a preliminary injunction is “merely to preserve the relative positions of the parties until a trial on the merits can be held.” Univ. of Tex. v. Camenisch, 451 U.S. 390, 395 (1981). A preliminary injunction, however, is an “extraordinary remedy, ” and the movant has “[the] burden of proving that the circumstances clearly demand it.” Overstreet v. Lexington-Fayette Urban Cty. Gov't, 305 F.3d 566, 573 (6th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). When considering whether to issue a preliminary injunction, a court considers four factors: (1) whether the movant has shown a strong likelihood of success on the merits of the controversy, (2) whether the movant will suffer irreparable harm without an injunction, (3) whether an injunction would cause substantial harm to others, and (4) whether an injunction would serve the public interest. Id. The movant has to present “[e]vidence that goes beyond the unverified allegations of the pleadings and motion papers.” Salmon v. Old Nat'l Bank, No. 4:08CV-116-M, 2010 WL 716232, at *4 (W.D. Ky.) (quotation omitted), abrogated on other grounds by No. 4:08CV-116-M, 2010 WL 1463196 (W.D. Ky. Apr. 8, 2010); see Leary v. Daeschner, 228 F.3d 729, 739 (6th Cir. 2000) (recognizing that “the proof required for the plaintiff to obtain a preliminary injunction is much more stringent than the proof required to survive a summary judgment motion” (citations omitted)); but see Univ. of Tex., 451 U.S. at 395 (“A party . . . is not required to prove his case in full at a preliminary-injunction hearing.”).

         These four factors generally ought to “be balanced against one another and should not be considered prerequisites to the grant of a preliminary injunction.” Leary, 228 F.3d at 736 (citations omitted). When a court, however, is able to determine the propriety of a preliminary injunction by relying on fewer than all four of the factors, it may do so. See Certified Restoration Dry Cleaning Network, LLC v. Tenke Corp., 511 F.3d 535, 542 (6th Cir. 2007) (“The district judge ‘is not required to make specific findings concerning each of the four factors used in determining a motion for preliminary injunction if fewer factors are dispositive of the issue.'” (quotation omitted)); Mascio v. Pub. Emps. Ret. Sys. of Ohio, 160 F.3d 310, 315 (6th Cir. 1998) (affirming the district court's issuance of a preliminary injunction based on the district court's conclusion that the plaintiff showed a likelihood of success on the merits). In particular, under the first factor, “a finding that there is simply no likelihood of success on the merits is usually fatal.” Gonzales v. Nat'l Bd. of Med. Exam'rs, 225 F.3d 620, 625 (6th Cir. 2000) (citation omitted); see Mich. State AFL-CIO v. Miller, 103 F.3d 1240, 1249 (6th Cir. 1997) (“While, as a general matter, none of these four factors are given controlling weight, a preliminary injunction issued where there is simply no likelihood of success on the merits must be reversed.”); see also Hall-Bey v. Ridley-Turner, 154 F. App'x 493, 494 (7th Cir. 2005) (“If the party seeking the injunction cannot establish such a likelihood, the court ends its inquiry and denies the request.” (citation omitted)).

         III. Analysis

         The Court begins by addressing some housekeeping matters to clarify and frame the legal issues in this case. The Court notes that John Does' claim, on the merits, is a claim under § 1983, which creates liability against “[e]very person who, under color of [state law], subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The statutory language “under color of [state law]” means that § 1983 is not a safeguard against private misconduct, no matter how objectionable. Am. Mfrs. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Sullivan, 526 U.S. 40, 50 (1999). Rather, § 1983 “prevent[s] state officials from using the cloak of their authority under state law to violate” federally protected rights. Lugar v. Edmondson Oil Co., 457 U.S. 922, 948 (1982) (Powell, J., dissenting) (emphasis added) (footnote omitted). In this same vein, § 1983's purpose “is to deter state actors from using the badge of their authority to deprive individuals of their federally guaranteed rights and to provide relief to victims if such deterrence fails, ” Wyatt v. Cole, 504 U.S. 158, 161 (1992) (citation omitted), and it offers injunctive relief as a remedy to this failure, City of L.A. v. Lyons, 461 U.S. 95, 133 n.23 (1983); Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690 (1978).

         When bringing a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff has to specify whether the claim is against a state official in his official or his individual capacity. Beil v. Lake Erie Corr. Records Dep't, 282 F. App'x 363, 367 (6th Cir. 2008). In an individual-capacity claim, liability attaches to a state official personally for the alleged wrongdoing, whereas in an official-capacity claim, liability attaches only to the government entity itself. Essex v. County of Livingston, 518 F. App'x 351, 354 (6th Cir. 2013). In this case, John Does name three defendants-Sevier County, the School Board, and Dr. Parton-and they identify their claim against Dr. Parton as an official-capacity claim. [Compl. at 1]. Dr. Parton, in his official capacity, is merely an agent of the School Board, and he is therefore a redundant party because the School Board is already a defendant in this action. See Faith Baptist Church v. Waterford Twp., 522 F. App'x 322, 327 (6th Cir. 2013) (“Having sued . . . the entity for which [the defendant] was an agent, the suit against [the defendant] in his official capacity was superfluous.”); Cady v. Arenac County, 574 F.3d 334, 342 (6th Cir. 2009) (“In an official capacity action, the plaintiff seeks damages not from the individual officer, but from the entity for which the officer is an agent.” (quotation omitted)); see also Williams v. Alhambra Sch. Dist. No. 68, No. CV-16-00461-PHX-GMS, 2017 WL 568351, at *3 (D. Ariz. Feb. 13, 2017) (“A suit against a school board member in his or her official capacity is equivalent to a suit against the school district.” (citing Ctr. for Bio-Ethical Reform, Inc. v. L.A. Cty. Sheriff Dep't, 533 F.3d 780, 799 (9th Cir. 2008))).

         In short, John Does' § 1983 claim, properly characterized, is one for municipal liability against Sevier County and the School Board. That is to say, a local governing body, like every other individual, “can be sued directly under § 1983 for . . . injunctive relief.” Monell, 436 U.S. at 690. A plaintiff is entitled to injunctive relief against a municipality when he satisfies a two-pronged inquiry:

A municipal liability claim against [a] [c]ounty and [a] [s]chool [b]oard must be examined by applying a two-pronged inquiry: (1) Whether the plaintiff has asserted the deprivation of a constitutional right at all; and (2) Whether the [c]ounty and/or the [s]chool [b]oard is responsible for that violation. ...

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