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G. G. ex rel. Johnson v. Boyd-Buchanan School

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

June 26, 2019

G. G. EX REL. JACKIE JOHNSON ET AL.
v.
BOYD-BUCHANAN SCHOOL ET AL.

          Session: May 22, 2019

          Interlocutory Appeal from the Chancery Court for Hamilton County No. 17-0201 Jeffrey M. Atherton, Chancellor

         This interlocutory appeal involves a discovery dispute. G.G., an eighth-grade student, was expelled from Boyd-Buchanan School after he sent sexually explicit messages to a female student on a social media platform. G.G. and his mother, Jackie Johnson, filed a complaint against Boyd-Buchanan School and other school officials. The trial court dismissed most of plaintiffs' claims. The only remaining claim is plaintiffs' breach of contract claim against the school. During discovery, plaintiffs requested the employment files of various school administrators and extensive information relating to the disciplinary records of non-party students. The school filed a motion for a protective order. The court granted the school's motion in part and denied it in part. The school then requested permission to file an interlocutory appeal. The trial court granted permission to appeal, as did this Court. In this opinion, we clarify the appropriate legal standard for analyzing discovery disputes. We also hold that the trial court abused its discretion by entering an order that would allow plaintiffs to discover information that is irrelevant to their breach of contract claim. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the trial court and remand for the entry of an order granting Boyd-Buchanan School's motion for a protective order in its entirety.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 9 Interlocutory Appeal; Judgment of the Chancery Court Reversed; Case Remanded

          Jeffrey W. Maddux, Rosemarie L. Hill, and Andrew M. W. Mutter, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellant, Boyd-Buchanan School.

          Charles P. Dupree, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellees, G.G., by best friend and mother Jackie Johnson, and Jackie Johnson, individually.

          Charles D. Susano, Jr., J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Arnold B. Goldin, J., joined. John W. McClarty, filed a dissenting opinion.

          OPINION

          CHARLES D. SUSANO, JR., JUDGE

         I.

         Prior to this litigation, G.G. attended Boyd-Buchanan School, a private school in Chattanooga. In January 2017, G.G. and a female student sent sexually explicit messages to one another through a social media platform. The mother of the female student notified the principal about G.G.'s inappropriate messages. School officials investigated. Ultimately, G.G. was expelled.

         Plaintiffs filed a complaint in which they alleged that defendants were liable for breach of contract, defamation, due process violations, and discrimination on the basis of race, sex, and status as a recipient of financial aid. Plaintiffs' complaint also requested the entry of a "temporary restraining order" that would allow G.G. to return to school. In April 2017, the trial court entered an order denying plaintiffs' request for a temporary restraining order, which the court construed as a request for a temporary injunction pursuant to Tenn. R. Civ. P. 65.04. The court later dismissed all of plaintiffs' claims with prejudice, except plaintiffs' breach of contract claim against the school.

         The following excerpt from plaintiffs' third amended complaint represents the entirety of their breach of contract claim:

Petitioners allege that all the Defendants, including the Board of Directors, by their actions, are guilty of Breach of Contract to educate G G [sic]. They have expelled him without cause for the expulsion (Except to alleviate the cost the financial aid to a student) and acting differently toward him based upon his minority race and gender; his mother, Jackie Johnson, will be required to obtain additional funds for school tuition, educational materials and other expenses as the result of the actions of the President and the Principal. His treatment, under current information and belief, is not in legal parity with that of other students similarly situated.
These actions also are in Breach of the School Handbook, Page 20, p. [sic].

         Plaintiffs appear to argue that the Middle School Handbook (the handbook) constitutes a written contract "to educate" G.G. Plaintiffs also seem to argue that the school breached this alleged contract because G.G.'s conduct did not warrant expulsion under the school's sexual harassment policy (located on page 20 of the handbook). According to plaintiffs, G.G.'s conduct did not constitute sexual harassment under that policy because his conduct did not occur "on or off school premises at [a] school-sponsored activit[y]" and was not "unwanted or unwelcome."

         During discovery, the school filed a motion for a protective order pursuant to Tenn. R. Civ. P. 26.03. Specifically, the school requested an order protecting the school from having to comply with the following discovery requests:

INTERROGATORY NO. 5: Please list all students formally disciplined within the last three years to date, including their name, gender, age, race, Parents' name and address, all charges placed against the student, action taken and what review of the action was made, and by what officials and the results of any review for each case.
INTERROGATORY NO. 7: List any students that have been expelled within the last three years to date, stating name, gender, age, race. Parents' name and address, initial charge, final charge for expulsion and factual basis for the behavior causing the expulsion. Also, please state the name, address and telephone number of all persons who investigated the charges.
INTERROGATORY NO. 8: Have any students other than GG ever been expelled for violation of the school's internet usage policy? If so, state the name, gender, age, race, Parents' name and address, nature of the charges, what were the factual bases for the charges, name and address of investigating party, who directed the expulsion and when.
INTERROGATORY NO. 9: Were any of the students listed in numbers 5, 7 and 8 above on financial aid to attend Boyd-Buchanan at the time of their discipline or expulsion? What was the effect of the disciplinary action on their financial aid package for the school?
INTERROGATORY NO. 10: Have any of the students listed in your answer to number 7 and number 8 above been reinstated into school? If so, please state the name of the student, their race, name and address of the student's parents, and the conditions of the reinstatement, including any change in financial aid status or increase in tuition.
INTERROGATORY NO. 11: Of the students listed in numbers 7 and 8 above, how many have applied for reinstatement to Boyd-Buchanan after expulsion and not been accepted back into school? Please list name, gender, age, race, Parents' name and address, behavior that led to expulsion, and reason not re-admitted.
INTERROGATORY NO. 12: Of the students listed in number 10 above, how many have not re-entered the school after being granted reinstatement? Please name the student, gender, age, race, parents' names and address and reason not re-entered, if known.
REQUEST NO. 1: Employment application, evaluation records and notes from date of employment to present date for Principal Jennifer Warnack.
REQUEST NO. 2: Complete employment file, including evaluations, written job description and disciplinary records for Principal Jennifer Warnack from ...

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