Walker v. Jemez Mountain Sch. Dist.

Decision Date19 June 2020
Docket NumberCiv. No. 19-714 JAP/GBW
PartiesJACKSON WALKER, and TROY GREENE, Plaintiffs, v. JEMEZ MOUNTAIN SCHOOL DISTRICT, NORMA CAVAZOS, in her individual capacity, and BUDDY DILLOW, in his individual capacity. Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

On October 8, 2019, Plaintiffs Jackson Walker and Troy Greene filed an AMENDED COMPLAINT FOR DAMAGES ("Complaint") (Doc. No. 9). On March 18, 2020, Defendants Norma Cavazos and Buddy Dillow (collectively, "Defendants") filed INDIVIDUAL DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS BASED ON QUALIFIED IMMUNITY AND IN THE ALTERNATIVE FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND SUPPORTING MEMORANDUM ("Motion") (Doc. No. 20). After considering the parties' briefing and the controlling law, the Court will grant Defendants' Motion.

Background

Plaintiff Walker is a former student of Coronado High School ("CHS") in the Jemez Mountain School District ("District") in Gallina, New Mexico. Compl. at ¶ 44. Plaintiff Greene is also a former student of CHS. Id. at ¶ 45. Defendant Dillow is the principal at CHS. Id. at ¶ 46. Defendant Cavazos is the superintendent of the District. Id. at ¶ 31.

In January 2017, CHS and the District "implemented a computer-based academic program titled Edgenuity as the principal basis of instruction and grading with the school district." Id. at ¶ 15. The Complaint alleges that the District had a shaky rollout of the Edgenuity grading software. Id. at ¶¶ 18-34. During Plaintiff Walker's high school tenure, his mother, Heidi Walker, was a teacher at CHS. Id. at ¶ 13. Ms. Walker had some authority to enter "bypasses," which allowed students to bypass incomplete Edgenuity course work in order to access exams. Id. at ¶ 51, 54; Mot. at 1. Ms. Walker's alleged use of bypasses for Plaintiffs' assignments led to her termination and the permanent revocation of her teaching license.1 See Compl. at ¶¶ 13, 14.

Plaintiffs graduated from CHS in May 2017, "participated in the graduation ceremony, and received their diplomas." Id. at ¶ 111. In May 2017, Plaintiffs "began making a series of requests to CHS for transcripts to be sent to colleges" to which they were applying. Id. at ¶ 112. In August 2017, the District informed Plaintiff Walker "that an investigation was being conducted because of alleged 'discrepancies' in Jackson's academic records." Id. at ¶ 113. The investigation included Plaintiff Greene's "academic history and qualifications" as well. Id. Defendants Dillow and Cavazos, in an attempt to verify Plaintiffs' graduation eligibility and the effect of Ms. Walker's bypasses, reviewed Plaintiffs' Edgenuity records. Id. at ¶¶ 117-20. Defendants subsequently revoked Plaintiffs' high school diplomas. Id. at ¶ 124. Defendants allegedly have refused to reissue Plaintiffs' diplomas and have "failed to issue to colleges and universities true and accurate transcripts of their high school course work and grades." Id. at ¶ 125. Plaintiffs seek "restitution of their high school diplomas and appropriate modifications to their high school transcripts[,]" as well as damages, pre- and post-judgment interest, and attorney's fees. Id. at 207-14.

Motion to Dismiss

A Federal Rule of Civil Procedure ("Rule") 12(b)(6) motion "tests the sufficiency of the allegations within the four corners of the complaint[.]" Mobley v. McCormick, 40 F.3d 337, 340(10th Cir. 1994). When considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court must accept as true all well-pleaded factual allegations in the complaint, view those allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. See Smith v. United States, 561 F.3d 1090, 1098 (10th Cir. 2009). The allegations must "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Id. A Court should grant a Rule 12(b)(g) motion to dismiss when, from the face of the complaint, it "appears that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of the claims that would entitle the plaintiff to relief." Soc'y of Separationists v. Pleasant Grove City, 416 F.3d 1239, 1241 (10th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Defendants Cavazos and Dillow have raised the defense of qualified immunity in their Motion. "The qualified-immunity doctrine protects public employees from both liability and 'from the burdens of litigation' arising from their exercise of discretion." Cummings v. Dean, 913 F.3d 1227, 1239 (10th Cir. 2019), cert. denied sub nom. Cummings v. Bussey, 140 S. Ct. 81 (2019) (quoting Allstate Sweeping, LLC v. Black, 706 F.3d 1261, 1266 (10th Cir. 2013)). It "shields government officials from liability where 'their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'" A.M. v. New Mexico Dep't of Health, 148 F. Supp. 3d 1232, 1290 (D.N.M. 2015) (quoting Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009)). "Qualified immunity also shields officers who have 'reasonable, but mistaken beliefs,' and operates to protect officers from the sometimes 'hazy border[s]' of the law." New Mexico Dep't of Health, 148 F. Supp. 3d at 1290 (quoting Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 205 (2001)) (brackets in original). Under Tenth Circuit precedent:

[w]hether a right is "clearly established" is an objective test: The relevant, dispositive inquiry in determining whether a right is clearly established is whether it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted. In order for the law to be clearly established, there must be a Supreme Court or Tenth Circuit decision on point, or the clearly establishedweight of authority from other courts must have found the law to be as the plaintiff maintains.

Brown v. Montoya, 662 F.3d 1152, 1164 (10th Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). "The contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right." Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 (1987). Qualified immunity does not apply only to official actions specifically deemed unlawful, rather, "in the light of pre-existing law the unlawfulness must be apparent." Id.

"Although qualified immunity defenses are typically resolved at the summary judgment stage, district courts may grant motions to dismiss on the basis of qualified immunity." Thomas v. Kaven, 765 F.3d 1183, 1194 (10th Cir. 2014). Doing so, however, "subjects the defendant to a more challenging standard of review than would apply on summary judgment." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). "At the motion to dismiss stage, it is the defendant's conduct as alleged in the complaint that is scrutinized for objective legal reasonableness." Id. (brackets and internal quotation marks omitted) (emphasis in original). The Court evaluates "(1) whether the facts that a plaintiff has alleged make out a violation of a constitutional right, and (2) whether the right at issue was clearly established." Keith v. Koerner, 707 F.3d 1185, 1188 (10th Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted). The Court "may address the two prongs of the qualified-immunity analysis in either order: 'if the plaintiff fails to establish either prong of the two-pronged qualified-immunity standard, the defendant prevails on the defense.'" Cummings, 913 F.3d at 1239, (quoting A.M. v. Holmes, 830 F.3d 1123, 1134-35 (10th Cir. 2016), cert. denied, 137 S.Ct. 2151 (2017)). "[T]he onus in on the plaintiff to demonstrate" that the plaintiff has satisfied the two prongs of the qualified immunity inquiry. Cummings, 913 F.3d at 1239.Analysis

Plaintiffs allege that Defendants violated their rights under the United States and New Mexico Constitutions. Defendants move for a dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) or, in the alternative, for summary judgment under Rule 56. In doing so, Defendants have raised the affirmative defense of qualified immunity. The Court will separately address each Count raised in the Complaint and test it under the standards of dismissal. Because the Court concludes it can dismiss the Complaint, without resorting to summary judgment, the Court need not address Defendants' alternative motion.2

Count I: Federal Procedural Due ProcessRight to a Diploma

Plaintiffs first allege that Defendants deprived Plaintiffs of their constitutional due process right to "receive a meaningful opportunity to be heard prior to depriving them of the benefits associated with a high school diploma and their protected property interests in the diplomas." Compl. at ¶ 131. Plaintiffs argue that "[a] reasonable public officer would have known that revoking the high school diplomas of a high school student and altering their transcripts violated [Plaintiffs'] constitutional rights . . . because the law was clearly established at the time." Id. at ¶ 139. Defendants counter that "Plaintiffs cannot establish that they have a protected property interest in keeping their diplomas or original, unmodified academic transcripts" and therefore procedural due process protections are not implicated. Mot. at 11. Defendants also assert the defense of qualified immunity. Id. at 3.

"Procedural due process imposes constraints on governmental decisions which deprive individuals of liberty or property interests within the meaning of the Due Process Clause ofthe . . Fourteenth Amendment." Montoya, 662 F.3d at 1167 (quoting Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 332 (1976)). "Due process is flexible and calls for such procedural protections as the particular situation demands." Montoya, 662 F.3d at 1167. To assess "whether an individual was denied procedural due process, courts must engage in a two-step inquiry: (1) did the individual possess a protected interest such that the due process protections were applicable; and, if so, then (2) was the individual afforded an appropriate level of process." Id. (quoting Merrifield v. Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs, 654 F.3d 1073, 1078 (10th Cir. 2011)).

Plaintiffs argue that they have...

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