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Jones v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 15, 2017

VAUGHN JONES, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          TANYA S. CHUTKAN United States District Judge.

         Plaintiffs are Vaughn Jones and Antonio Pixley, two former basketball coaches at Calvin Coolidge Senior High School in Washington, D.C., Justin Route, a former student and basketball player at Coolidge, and Jennifer Route, Justin's mother. Plaintiffs challenge D.C. Public Schools' (“DCPS”) investigation into Justin Route's eligibility to play basketball, as well its subsequent determination that he was ineligible and that Jones and Pixley should be terminated due to their involvement in falsifying Justin's student records. Plaintiffs allege that the District violated the Due Process Clause and engaged in fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.[1] The District moved to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). (ECF No. 34). Upon consideration of the motion and Plaintiffs' Opposition, and for the reasons stated herein, the District's motion is GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         While the factual and procedural history of this case was described in this court's April 14, 2016 Opinion, see 177 F.Supp.3d at 544, the court will briefly discuss the relevant facts here. In the summer of 2015, DCPS began to investigate whether Justin Route was eligible to play basketball during the 2015-2016 school year. (Third Am. Compl. (“Compl.”) ¶ 88 (ECF No. 33)). Because students may only play basketball for four years during high school, school officials believed Justin was ineligible to play an additional year due to his having played as a ninth grader at his previous school. (Id. ¶¶ 85, 88). In August 2015, Jennifer Route provided DCPS with transcripts she had received in 2013 from Justin's previous school, showing that he attended for three years and that he had completed the eighth grade. (Id. ¶ 92; Compl. Ex. M). That same month, DCPS officials obtained their own copies of Justin's past transcripts, which they provided to Jennifer Route and which showed that he had actually completed ninth grade at his previous school. (Compl. ¶¶ 103-08; Compl. Ex. P). The following month, a DCPS investigator interviewed Justin, who reported that he had repeated eighth grade at his previous school and entered Coolidge as a freshman. (Compl. ¶¶ 95-96; Compl. Ex. F). Following this investigation, DCPS concluded that Justin was ineligible, that his school records had been altered, and that Jones and Pixley should be terminated from their coaching positions due to their involvement in altering Justin's records. (Compl. Ex. B).

         Plaintiffs allege that the transcript DCPS obtained and used to support its determination that Justin was ineligible and that Jones and Pixley should be terminated was inaccurate or falsified. (Compl. ¶¶ 106-08). They claim that Jones was targeted by the District due to Plaintiffs' vocal complaints of mismanagement, and that the terminations at issue here were just one part of ongoing retaliation for Jones' public criticism. (Id. ¶¶ 150-51, 157-63). Plaintiffs first filed this suit in D.C. Superior Court, and in December 2015 that court issued a temporary restraining order, ordering that Jones and Pixley be restored to their coaching positions and prohibiting the District from removing them from those positions pending the outcome of the litigation. 177 F.Supp.3d at 544. The case was subsequently removed to U.S. District Court, and the District moved to dissolve the Superior Court's TRO. In April 2016, this court granted the District's motion based on Plaintiffs' failure to demonstrate irreparable harm sufficient to support a continued TRO or preliminary injunction. Id. at 546-48. In July 2016, Plaintiffs filed a Third Amended Complaint, adding Justin and Jennifer Route as plaintiffs, and the District has now moved to dismiss under Federal Rule 12(b)(6). (ECF Nos. 33, 34).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint. See Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235, 242 (D.C. Cir. 2002). “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). A claim is plausible when the factual content allows the court to “draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. Thus, although a plaintiff may survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion even where “recovery is very remote and unlikely, ” the facts alleged in the complaint “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007) (internal quotation marks omitted). Evaluating a 12(b)(6) motion is a “context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Due Process Claim (Count I)

         Plaintiffs Jones and Pixley first allege that they were not afforded due process by the District in its investigation and ultimate decision to terminate their coaching positions. In order to state a due process claim, Plaintiffs must first establish that they had a property interest in continued employment. See Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532, 538 (1985) (citing Board of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 576-578 (1972)). The Constitution does not itself create property interests; instead, they are “created and their dimensions are defined by existing rules or understandings that stem from an independent source such as state law.” Id. (quoting Roth, 408 U.S. at 577); Ralls Corp. v. Comm. on Foreign Inv. in U.S., 758 F.3d 296, 315 (D.C. Cir. 2014) (“[P]roperty interests ‘attain . . . constitutional status by virtue of the fact that they have been initially recognized and protected by state law.'” (quoting Paul v. Davis, 424 U.S. 693, 710 (1976))). Consideration of whether Plaintiffs have a property interest in their continued coaching positions thus requires a review of local law.[2] See O'Donnell v. Barry, 148 F.3d 1126, 1139 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (no property interest in continued employment under D.C. Code § 4-104); Grant v. District of Columbia, 908 A.2d 1173, 1179 (D.C. 2006) (citing O'Donnell and reviewing various other sections of the D.C. Code).

         Jones and Pixley were not full-time or career DCPS employees. Instead, they were hired yearly as coaches under the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association (“DCIAA”) Coach Agreements (Am. Compl. ¶ 26; Compl. Ex. A). They allege that they had a property interest in these positions because the DCIAA Handbook provided assurances of some available due process rights in connection with disciplinary actions. (Compl. ¶¶ 164-74). Under the D.C. Municipal Regulations governing interscholastic athletics, “a coach . . . who knows, or should have known, that an ineligible student is participating or has participated in an interscholastic athletic program or contest, shall be subject to disciplinary action pursuant to [DCPS] regulation or policy.” 5A D.C.M.R. § 2702.7. Plaintiffs assert that the policy in the DCIAA Handbook controls disciplinary action here. The Handbook states that “disciplinary actions shall be taken pursuant to applicable personnel regulations” and, further, “[p]rogressive discipline shall be utilized in accordance with applicable personnel regulations.” (Handbook § 8.4.1(4) (Compl. Ex. I)). The Handbook additionally provides that “[a]ll employees shall have the right to grieve or otherwise challenge any adverse action pursuant to DCPS regulations.” (Id. § 8.4.2). Finally, the Handbook contains a section called “Appeals Procedure” that describes the process for bringing grievances. (See Id. § 8.5.2). Additionally, though not cited by Plaintiffs, the DCPS Report of Investigation into Jones cited D.C. Municipal Regulation § 5-E1401.2 as the basis for its findings against him. (Pl. Ex. 4). This section of the city's regulations further provides for the right to an appeal, and some limited process. 5-E14 D.C.M.R. §§ 1402, 1406.

         The District does not dispute that Plaintiffs may have had some right to appeal their termination. In the court's view, Plaintiffs Jones and Pixley have therefore satisfied their burden at this stage to plausibly allege that they had a property interest in their employment, entitling them to some limited due process protection. Though it remains unclear what process Jones and Pixley may have been entitled to, they allege that they had no hearing and no opportunity to refute specific allegations made against them. (Compl. ¶¶ 176-77). Plaintiffs have thus plausibly stated a claim that they had a property interest in their position, were entitled to some due process protections, and failed to receive what process was due.

         The District additionally argues, however, that even if Plaintiffs can state a due process claim, their claim should be still dismissed on the ground that the District of Columbia may not be held liable as a municipality under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[3] The court agrees. A municipality may be not be sued under § 1983 for the acts of its employees on a theory of respondeat superior or vicarious liability. Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of N.Y., 436 U.S. 658, 691-92 (1978). Instead, a municipality may only be sued as a “person” under § 1983 when the alleged constitutional injury was the result of an “action [taken] pursuant to official municipal policy.” Connick v. Thompson, 563 U.S. 51, 60 (2011) (quoting Monell, 436 U.S. at 691). “Official municipal policy includes the decisions of a government's lawmakers, the acts of its policymaking officials, and practices so persistent and widespread as to practically have the force of law.” Id. at 61.

         Plaintiffs must also allege that some official policy caused the deprivation of due process. Monell, 436 U.S. at 692. In other words, Plaintiffs must allege that the District's policy was the “moving force” behind the constitutional violation. City of Canton, Ohio v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 389 (1989). Plaintiffs may establish causation “if, for instance, the municipality or one of its policymakers explicitly adopted the policy that was the moving force of the constitutional violation.” Warren v. District of Columbia, 353 F.3d 36, 39 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (internal quotations omitted). To be considered a policy maker, an individual must “speak with final policymaking authority, ” Jett v. Dallas Indep. Sch. Dist., 491 U.S. 701, 737 (1989), and “typically must be at least an agency head or the governing body of an agency, ” Coleman v. District of Columbia, 828 F.Supp.2d 87, 91 (D.D.C. 2011) (finding that an Assistant Chief in the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department was not a final policy maker). Central to the court's analysis is not whether an employee was simply in a leadership position, but whether “the D.C. Code ...


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