Martin v. Shawano-Gresham School Dist.

Decision Date03 July 2002
Docket NumberNo. 01-3193.,01-3193.
Citation295 F.3d 701
PartiesCharla MARTIN, as Special Administrator of the Estate of Timijane Martin and Parent of Timijane Martin, and Timothy Martin, Parent of Timijane Martin, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. SHAWANO-GRESHAM SCHOOL DISTRICT, Richard Hess, Wausau Underwriters Insurance Company, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit

Lawrence G. Albrecht (Argued), First, Blondis, Albrecht, Bangert & Novotnak, Milwaukee, WI, Willard P. Techmeier Techmeier McCormick Group, Milwaukee, WI, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

Gregg T. Heidenreich (Argued), Stilp & Cotton, Brookfield, WI, for Defendants-Appellees.

Before RIPPLE, MANION, and EVANS, Circuit Judges.

MANION, Circuit Judge.

On May 19, 1999, Timijane Martin, a 13-year-old seventh grader at Shawano Community Middle School in Shawano, Wisconsin, was suspended from school for possessing a cigarette on school grounds. After returning home at the end of the school day, Timijane committed suicide. Timijane's parents, individually and on their daughter's behalf, sued the Shawano-Gresham School District, the Assistant Principal who suspended Timijane, and various other school officials, alleging substantive and procedural due process claims, an Equal Protection claim, and supplemental state law claims. The district court granted the defendants summary judgment on the federal claims and dismissed the state claims without prejudice. The Martins appeal, and we affirm.

I.

In 1999, Timijane Martin was a seventh grader at the Shawano Community Middle School. On the afternoon of the school day on May 19, 1999, some students told the assistant principal at Shawano, Anthony Marinack, that Tabitha Reiter, a friend of Timijane's, had some cigarettes with her at school. Based on this information, Marinack searched Tabitha's locker, where he found a pack of cigarettes. Marinack called Tabitha from class to his office and told her that she would be suspended from school for three days. Marinack then called Tabitha's mother at work and left a message for her regarding Tabitha's suspension.

While in Marinack's office, Tabitha informed him that Timijane also had cigarettes in her locker, hidden in a sock. Marinack then went to Timijane's classroom and called her out into the hallway. He asked her if she had any cigarettes; she claimed that she did not. Marinack and Timijane then walked to her locker, where he again asked her if she had any cigarettes. Once again she denied having any. Marinack then searched her locker, eventually finding a cigarette in a pair of socks located in the side pocket of Timijane's backpack.1 After he found the cigarette, Timijane began to cry, telling Marinack that she was holding the cigarette for someone else. Marinack told her that she still possessed tobacco on school grounds, which was against school policy, and therefore, she would be receiving a three-day suspension.

Timijane continued to cry as she returned to her classroom to gather her belongings. Several students saw Timijane during this time, and they stated that she was crying pretty hard. Back in his office, Marinack reassured both Tabitha and Timijane that they had been good kids in school and had not been in a lot of trouble before and were not in a lot of trouble now. Despite these reassurances, Timijane continued to cry. Marinack asked Timijane where her parents were and learned that they were working. Timijane told Marinack that her father would be off work the next day, and would come to school to discuss her suspension. While Marinack was talking to Timijane Tabitha's mother returned Marinack's earlier phone call and informed him that she would pick Tabitha up from school. While Marinack was still on the phone with Tabitha's mother, the 2:30 bell rang, signaling the end of the school day. Marinack asked Timijane if she needed to take the bus home from school, and she replied that she did. Marinack then asked her if she was sure that she did not want him to contact her mother. Timijane repeated that she would take the bus home. Still crying, Timijane left Marinack's office. While waiting to get on the bus she talked to a few classmates, and then took the bus home. After she left for home, Marinack left a message on the Martins' home answering machine alerting them to Timijane's suspension. Tragically, once she arrived home, Timijane went to the basement and hung herself.

Timijane's mother arrived home about 4:00 p.m., but did not discover Timijane at that time. Instead, she heard Marinack's phone message and immediately drove to the school. Mrs. Martin explained that she first went to the baseball field because Timijane played recreational softball2 and she had practice that afternoon. After not finding her there, she drove to the school where she found Marinack in the parking lot. Mrs. Martin and Marinack began discussing Timijane's suspension, but at some point during the conversation, Mrs. Martin asked where Timijane was, and when Marinack told her that she had taken the bus home, Mrs. Martin returned home. She found Timijane in the basement and immediately called 911, but they were unable to save Timijane.

After her death, Timijane's parents sued Anthony Marinack, the Assistant Principal, Jeanne Cronce, the Principal, Richard Hess, the Superintendent, William Matthias, the Assistant Superintendent, the Shawano Community Middle School, and the Shawano-Gresham School District (hereinafter defendants) under Section 1983, alleging both substantive and procedural due process claims, and an Equal Protection claim.3 The Martins also asserted state law claims of negligence. Following discovery, the defendants moved for summary judgment. The district court granted the defendants summary judgment on the plaintiffs' constitutional claims and dismissed the supplemental state law claims without prejudice. The plaintiffs appeal.

II.

On appeal, the plaintiffs argue that the district court erred in granting the defendants summary judgment on their substantive due process, procedural due process, and Equal Protection claims. Summary judgment is appropriate if there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P.56(c). We review the grant of summary judgment de novo, considering the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Shanoff v. Illinois Dept. of Human Servs., 258 F.3d 696, 701 (7th Cir.2001).

A. Procedural Due Process

The Martins first contend that the defendants violated Timijane's procedural due process rights by suspending her without providing parental notice and a hearing prior to the suspension. In Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565, 95 S.Ct. 729, 42 L.Ed.2d 725 (1975), the Supreme Court held that public school students have a property interest in public education, and thus a right to procedural safeguards. However, under Goss students have a right to only minimal process: "[D]ue process requires, in connection with a suspension of 10 days or less, that the student be given oral or written notice of the charges against him, and if he denies them, an explanation of the evidence the authorities have, and an opportunity to present his side of the story." Id. at 581, 95 S.Ct. 729.

In this case, the undisputed evidence established that the defendants complied with the procedural due process mandates of Goss. Specifically, Marinack informed Timijane of the charges against her—possession of a cigarette on school premises—and he allowed Timijane an opportunity to present her side of the story, which she did, explaining that she was holding the cigarette for a friend. However, Timijane did not deny the charge, nor could she, as she was present when Marinack searched her locker and found the cigarette. Marinack then explained to Timijane that it was irrelevant that she was holding the cigarette for a friend because it was in her locker and school rules prohibit possession of cigarettes on school grounds for any reason.4

In response, the Martins argue that due process requires more, citing Section 120.13(1)(B)3 of the Wisconsin Code which provides that "[t]he parent or guardian of a suspended minor pupil shall be given prompt notice of the suspension and the reason for the suspension." Wis. Stat. § 120.13(1)(B)3. They also point to Policy 441 of the Shawano-Gresham School District, which provides:

Before any disciplinary action such as expulsion or suspension is taken against a student, the student has a right to the due process guaranteed him/her by state law. Any student accused of an action and threatened with punishment for this action shall:

1. Be advised of the reason for the disciplinary action.

2. Have the right to explain his/her actions or his/her side of the allegations.

3. Have his/her parents(s) or guardian notified if under eighteen and/or living at home; and

4. Have a right to a hearing before the district administration and/or Board, with the student's parent(s), legal counsel, or guardian present if desired.

The defendants maintain in response that nothing in the language of either Section 120.13(1)(B)(3) or Policy 441 mandates pre-suspension parental notification or a pre-suspension hearing. We need not resolve this interpretative dispute, however, because the failure to conform with the procedural requirements guaranteed by state law does not by itself constitute a violation of federal due process. Pro-Eco, Inc. v. Board of Comm'rs of Jay County, Ind., 57 F.3d 505, 514 (7th Cir.1995) (a violation of a state procedural statute does not offend the Constitution); Wallace v. Tilley, 41 F.3d 296, 301 (7th Cir.1994) ("The denial of state procedures in and of itself does not create inadequate process under the federal constitution."); Osteen v. Henley, 13 F.3d 221, 225 (7th Cir.1993) ("[A] violation of state law ... is not a denial of due process, even if the state law...

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