Motion to Dismiss for Claims by Public School Student Who Got Mean And Angry on Facebook

Update (September 6, 2012):  Just in time for the new school year comes an initial ruling on the validity and boundaries of Facebook speech in public high schools. Chief Judge Michael Davis (D. Minn.) partially granted the Minnewaska School District’s motion to dismiss, but left the majority of the claims in 12-year-old R.S.’s Complaint live to see the discovery phase. As the non-scientific prognosticators here at Minnesota Litigator correctly predicted, Chief Judge Davis dismissed the 42 U.S.C. §§ 1985, 1986 claims (civil conspiracy) and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims while holding that the rest of R.S.’s claims (violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the 1st and 4th Amendments, and invasion of privacy) had merit.

During oral argument, one of the school district’s arguments was that it was being dragged through the mud and that it was forced to spend taxpayer dollars defending itself against “baseless” claims. After the school district’s motion to dismiss has largely failed, it will be interesting to see if the school district tries to negotiate a settlement before the case proceeds further.

Original Post (July 16, 2012): Are the boundaries of regulating Facebook speech at school clear enough that administrators know what is constitutional? Do students have a reasonable expectation of privacy on their Facebook accounts? These were some of the issues raised in U.S. District Court Chief Judge Michael Davis’s (D. Minn.) courtroom on Thursday July 12 during oral arguments at the motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.

Regular readers are likely familiar with 12-year-old R.S. and her mother S.S. in their suit against the Minnewaska School District for violations of 42 U.S.C §§ 1983, 1985, 1986, Minnesota Constitution as well as the torts of intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy related to the school’s regulation and discipline for R.S.’s Facebook speech. The facts are best summarized in Defendants’ brief in support of their Motion to Dismiss.

Minnesota Litigator Guest Poster Jake Smith was in the Chief Judge Davis’s courtroom and reports on who was there, what was argued, and, based on the comments and questions during the hearing, how the Judge might rule.

Courtroom 15E in Minneapolis was packed with spectators who were eager to hear the Minnewaska School District Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss. In addition to a few summer clerks in the U.S. Attorneys’ Office were 39 incoming law students from around the country in town for the Council on Legal Education Opportunities pre-law program, hosted this year by William Mitchell College of Law. Judge Davis acknowledged the big crowd and asked counsel to introduce appearances for the record. Representing the school district was Teresa Knoedler from Lind Jensen, representing the Polk County Defendants was William Everett, and representing R.S. and S.S. was Wallace Hilke, Bryan Freeman from Lindquist & Vennum and Teresa Nelson from the ACLU-Minnesota chapter.

Judge Davis asked Ms. Knoedler to give an overview of the facts in the case and to outline the FRCP 12(b)(6) standard to the students in the courtroom. She then continued with her argument. The School District Defendants’ argument generally followed its legal brief but focused on two main issues:

  1. The threshold question of whether the individual defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. State actors are entitled to qualified immunity unless their conduct violates clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603 (1999). Knoedler argued that because there is no bright line First Amendment case regarding regulation of Facebook speech or Fourth Amendment case regarding seizure of a Facebook account and no reasonable person would have known of one, the individual Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity.
  2. Minnewaska School District cannot be vicariously liable for the actions of the individual Defendants because Plaintiffs did not allege that the conduct came from a school policy or custom. Government actors, like a school district, can only be liable under § 1983 if the plaintiff’s injury results from “execution of a government’s policy or custom.” Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978). Essentially, Defendants argue that because there is no referenced school-wide policy in the Complaint, the school district cannot be liable and therefore the claim must fail.

Mr. Hilke then came to podium and responded to Defendants’ arguments:

  1. Plaintiffs claimed that the individual Defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity because Tinker v. Des Moines Community School Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969) and New Jersey v. TLO, 469 U.S. 325 (1985) were established constitutional rights that the administrators would have known about. Mr. Hilke claimed that the administrators would have known about Tinker was cited in the school policy. Under the Tinker standard, actions need to be “materially disruptive” for the school to regulate speech. He then argued that the actions alleged in the Complaint were nowhere near disruptive to school activities.
  2. Plaintiffs then argued that the School District Defendants had a policy that meets their burden. Specifically, Plaintiffs argued that the past conduct of the school in dealing with similar seizures of Facebook accounts. The one question that Plaintiffs did not answer was whether the conduct of the principal or other one of the individual Defendants was plead in the Complaint.

Judge Davis gave a few hints about how he might rule:

  • The Judge was not willing to listen to Defendants’ argument that the case is moot because R.S. allegedly moved out of the district thereby removing the court’s subject matter jurisdiction
  • The Judge said that the “civil conspiracy claims are probably gone” and so are the individual claims of S.S. and further told Plaintiffs’ counsel to rest on his brief for those arguments – take that how you will
  • The Judge asked Ms. Knoedler about whether discovery should be done to flesh out some of the allegations in Plaintiffs’ complaint and followed up by stating that in general there have been more FRCP 12(b)(6) motions filed where the parties should have waited until the summary judgment stage
  • The Judge was a little skeptical about whether the actions alleged in the Complaint were extreme and outrageous enough for an IIED claim.

Other interesting nuggets from the hearing:

  • Addressing the CLEO contingent, Judge Davis said that when he started law school he had the opportunity to participate in CLEO but turned it down. He said that he should have participated because he would have received scholarship money
  • The Judge also praised the legal profession but said that it was maybe the second best profession after the medical field
  • The hearing lasted over an hour and a half, which is much longer than Judge Davis’s typical 30 minute hearings

Given the arguments and the Judge’s comments during the hearing, it seems like Plaintiffs’ claims are going to be pared down to R.S.’s §1983 claims and invasion of privacy claims, but we will have to wait and see.

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