Thompson v. Ragland

Decision Date26 January 2022
Docket NumberNo. 21-1143,21-1143
Citation23 F.4th 1252
Parties Rowan THOMPSON, Plaintiff - Appellant, v. Thomas RAGLAND, in his official capacity as Associate Director for Student Conduct for Metropolitan State University of Denver, Defendant - Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Tenth Circuit

Igor Raykin, Kishinevsky & Raykin, Aurora, CO (Michael Nolt, Kishinvesky & Raykin, with him on the briefs), for Plaintiff - Appellant.

Natalie Powell, Office of the Colorado Attorney General, Denver, CO (Philip J. Weiser, Colorado Attorney General, and Andrew Katarikawe, Office of the Colorado Attorney General, with her on the briefs), for Defendant - Appellee.

Before TYMKOVICH, Chief Judge, HARTZ, and MATHESON, Circuit Judges.

HARTZ, Circuit Judge.

Rowan Thompson, a student at Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU), had a classroom dispute with her chemistry professor that ultimately prompted Thompson to drop the professor's class. But when Thompson emailed her former classmates to express her displeasure with the professor and to suggest that her classmates leave "honest" end-of-term evaluations, Aplt. App. at 10, Thomas Ragland, MSU's Associate Director for Student Conduct, allegedly prohibited Thompson from further contacting the professor or even discussing the professor with any students taking any of the professor's classes.

Thompson sued Ragland under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, arguing that he violated her First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim, holding that Ragland had not violated clearly established law and therefore was entitled to qualified immunity. Exercising jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we reverse and remand for further proceedings. Because one can infer from the allegations in the complaint that there was no proper justification for Ragland's actions, the complaint states a violation of clearly established law governing the regulation of student speech.

I. BACKGROUND

On appeal from the grant of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, we treat as true all well-pleaded factual allegations and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Brown v. Montoya , 662 F.3d 1152, 1162 (10th Cir. 2011). We proceed to summarize the allegations of the complaint.

Thompson has an eye condition that makes her sensitive to light, requiring that she sit in the first three rows of a classroom to see what is written on the white board. She was enrolled in a chemistry class at MSU taught by Dr. Megan Lazorski. On February 4, 2019, Thompson arrived late to the class. Noting that all the seats in the first three rows were occupied, she sat on the floor in the front row. Dr. Lazorski did not approve, interrupting her lecture to instruct Thompson to take a seat. Although Thompson informed Dr. Lazorski about her eye condition, the professor still insisted that Thompson move to a seat, and she had students leave the front row so that Thompson could sit there.

A week later, Thompson again arrived late to Dr. Lazorski's class. Because all seats in the first three rows were taken, Thompson sat on the floor in the front row, in a space where a desk was missing. Dr. Lazorski instructed Thompson to move to a seat. Thompson said she preferred to sit on the floor in the front row because of her eye condition. Dr. Lazorski responded that the only options were to sit at a desk or leave the classroom. Thompson chose to leave class.

Thompson ultimately dropped Dr. Lazorski's class because of the seating dispute "and the unlikelihood of it being resolved." Aplt. App. at 8–9. MSU removed the class from Thompson's record, and the school refunded her tuition for the class. Still, Thompson was dissatisfied with how Dr. Lazorski had treated her. She complained about Dr. Lazorski to various top MSU officials and administrators in a letter. She also requested a mediation of her dispute with Dr. Lazorski, which took place on March 18. During the mediation Thompson was encouraged to fill out evaluation and class-rating forms to address her concerns about Dr. Lazorski's performance as a professor.

Thompson later realized, however, that she could not submit a review of the class or Dr. Lazorski's performance because she was no longer enrolled in any of the professor's classes. She proceeded to send the following email to her former classmates:

Hello everyone, I'm Rowan- some of you may know me as the goth girl who sat on the floor in class. For those who don't know, I came late to class a couple of times and sat on the floor. It angered the professor enough that I was asked to leave class on the last occasion. A few weeks later, after a mediation attempt between the dean of chemistry and the professor, I had to drop the class to stop further confrontation- over sitting on the floor.
I have heard so many of you say how horrible a time you're having in this class, that there are some bits that are ridiculous or downright unreasonable. You shouldn't have to suffer through a class, especially one that is required, and this is not what college is supposed to be like. College is supposed to make us feel excited about our futures and finally learn what we are interested in, not ditch class because we know we won't learn anything. You don't need to keep your complaints and troubles private; this is what the evaluations are for. They're online; the link to fill them out appears when you log into Blackboard, they take only a couple of minutes, are anonymous, and the more detail is said the better. Every issue you've had, every complaint? This is when the faculty and university is listening and wants to hear them. Students, including myself, who have dropped the class won't be able to fill out an evaluation- our voices cannot be heard unless we speak to the deans directly, but I know for a fact that many are afraid to speak face-to-face.
Please, take the few minutes to review this chemistry class and be honest- make the faculty listen to you so that this class can change for the better. If not for yourself, than for those who have had to drop the class, feeling worthless and stupid, or for students who will have to take this class after you.
Hang in there- you're almost done and then you can leave this semester behind you! ? ?
-Rowan

Aplt. App. at 9–10. The complaint alleges that the email did "not involve a substantial interference or material disruption to the work of MSU" and did "not impinge on the rights of any other student." Aplt. App. at 13.

On April 25, Thompson received a letter from Ragland informing her that "the Dean of Students Office received reports that [Thompson] may have violated provisions of the Student Code of Conduct"; that these reports concerned "the disagreement between [Thompson] and Dr. Lazorski"; that, specifically, Thompson's email to her former classmates "may have violated the Student Code of Conduct"; that Thompson had to meet with Ragland; and that Thompson was subject to a "No Contact order" restricting her from communicating with Dr. Lazorski. Aplt. App. at 9–10. Ragland's letter specifically cautioned: "Further, due to the persistent communication and disruption your communication is about Dr. Lazorski (sic), you are restricted from discussing Dr. Lazorski with any student in the CHE 1800 course or any of Dr. Lazorski's classes, as this would be a violation of the this No Contact Directive (sic)." Aplt. App. at 10.

Thompson then filed the present suit. She sought compensatory and punitive damages, though not injunctive relief. Ragland moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, asserting that he was entitled to qualified immunity. The district court granted the motion. It bypassed the constitutional question, holding that even if Ragland's conduct abridged the First Amendment, he did not violate clearly established law.

II. DISCUSSION
A. Qualified immunity

We review de novo a district court's ruling on a motion to dismiss a complaint because of qualified immunity. See Brown , 662 F.3d at 1162.

Public officials "are entitled to qualified immunity under § 1983 unless (1) they violated a federal statutory or constitutional right, and (2) the unlawfulness of their conduct was clearly established at the time." District of Columbia v. Wesby , ––– U.S. ––––, 138 S. Ct. 577, 589, 199 L.Ed.2d 453 (2018) (internal quotation marks omitted). To establish that the law was clearly established in this context, the plaintiff must point to Supreme Court or Tenth Circuit precedents in point, or to the clear weight of authority from other circuit courts deciding that the law was as the plaintiff maintains. See Cox v. Wilson , 971 F.3d 1159, 1171 (10th Cir. 2020). "[E]xisting law must have placed the constitutionality of the [public official's] conduct beyond debate." Wesby , 138 S. Ct. at 589 (internal quotation marks omitted). But "a general constitutional rule already identified in the decisional law may apply with obvious clarity to the specific conduct in question, even though the very action in question has not previously been held unlawful."

Hope v. Pelzer , 536 U.S. 730, 741, 122 S.Ct. 2508, 153 L.Ed.2d 666 (2002) (brackets and internal quotation marks omitted).

The procedural posture of the qualified-immunity inquiry may be critical. Because they turn on a fact-bound inquiry, "qualified immunity defenses are typically resolved at the summary judgment stage" rather than on a motion to dismiss. Thomas v. Kaven , 765 F.3d 1183, 1194 (10th Cir. 2014). "Asserting a qualified immunity defense via a Rule 12(b)(6) motion ... subjects the defendant to a more challenging standard of review than would apply on summary judgment." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). On a motion to dismiss, "it is the defendant's conduct as alleged in the complaint that is scrutinized for [constitutionality]." Behrens v. Pelletier , 516 U.S. 299, 309, 116 S.Ct. 834, 133 L.Ed.2d 773 (1996).

B. Governing law

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