MATOS v. CLINTON SCHOOL DISTRICT

2004 | Cited 0 times | D. Massachusetts | December 10, 2004

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

This is a suit brought on behalf of a high school student whowas suspended after she typed into a computer and printed outderogatory remarks about her teacher that the student intended tokeep private but while she was participating in a class exercise.Pending before this Court is plaintiff's application for apreliminary injunction to prevent the defendant School Districtfrom disseminating any information about the plaintiff'ssuspension until after the case can be heard on the merits.

I. Factual Background

The relevant facts are in considerable dispute. On December 18, 2002 plaintiff Alma Matos ("Matos"), a twelfth grade studentat Clinton High School, was suspended for ten days by the schooladministration. Matos, while typing a class assignment on aschool computer in her Journalism class taught by defendantMarguerite Foley ("Foley"), composed and printed offensiveremarks about Foley and defendant Principal Gerald Gaw ("Gaw").Matos printed those remarks and placed them in her "personaljournal". The teacher saw the conduct and asked to see the paper.When Matos refused to show her, Foley took the assignment fromMatos. When Matos took the assignment back from Foley, theteacher told her to report to Gaw's office. Matos complied.

According to Matos, after she arrived in the Principal'soffice, Gaw read the offending paper which stated, among otherthings, that Foley and Gaw were sleeping together. Gaw sent forMatos's mother, who works in or very near the same building and,after the mother arrived, informed them both that Matos would besuspended for ten school days. No written notification of hersuspension was given until January 6, 2003.

Matos filed suit in this Court against the defendants, theClinton School District and various officials employed by theDistrict, on January 14, 2003. Her complaint contains ten counts,including claims for intentional infliction of emotionaldistress, violations of the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, andviolations of Matos's constitutional rights of free speech,privacy, due process and equal protection. Matos seeks apreliminary injunction that would: 1) require defendants to expunge from her school records any reference to the suspension until defendants comply with due process requirements and internal school regulations;

2) enjoin defendants from notifying colleges to which she has applied for admission of the suspension; 3) require the defendants to vacate the suspension and allow her to return to school immediately; 4) enjoin defendants from altering the contents of the computer on which Matos was working at the time of the alleged incident; and 5) enjoin defendants from taking any adverse action regarding her status as a member of the National Honor Society.1

On January 17, 2003, after an ex parte hearing on Matos'smotion for a temporary restraining order ("TRO"), this Courtorally entered a Bench Order allowing the relief requested insubparagraphs 2, 4 and 5 above. On January 24, 2003, after asecond hearing at which both parties were represented butdefendants were unprepared to argue the merits of the motion,this Court entered, with the agreement of the parties, a writtenTRO which extended the earlier order until "further notice fromthis Court". On February 6, 2003, this Court heard oral argumentson the merits of Matos's application for a preliminaryinjunction.

II. Legal Analysis

Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 65, a district court exercisesbroad discretionary power to grant or deny preliminaryinjunctions. In ruling on the pending motion for a preliminary injunction, this Court must consider whether Matos hasestablished that: 1) she has a substantial likelihood of successon the merits, 2) there exists, absent injunctive relief, asignificant risk of irreparable harm to Matos, 3) the balance ofhardship tilts in her favor, and 4) granting the injunction willnot negatively affect the public interest. See, e.g.,Ross-Simons of Warwick, Inc. v. Baccarat, Inc., 102 F.3d 12,15 (1st Cir. 1996); TEC Engineering Corp. v. Budget MoldersSupply Inc., 82 F.3d 542, 544 (1st Cir. 1996).

The last three factors are relatively easy to analyze in thiscase. The potential for irreparable harm to the plaintiff ifcolleges are notified about a suspension that is later expungedis obvious. Conversely, the burden on the defendants of aninjunction would be relatively minor because Matos has alreadyserved her ten-day suspension and it would cost the defendantsvery little in time or resources to otherwise preserve the statusquo. Furthermore, the requested injunction would have little orno impact on any public interest. Those three factors, therefore,clearly weigh in Matos's favor. The remaining and most importantfactor, however, is whether Matos has a substantial likelihood ofsucceeding on the merits of her federal law claims and that is amuch closer question.2 A. Due Process of Law

Matos argues that she was denied due process of law because,prior to her suspension, she was not afforded appropriate writtennotice of the suspension and was not given the opportunity tochallenge the accuracy of the facts that led to her suspension.In response, defendants argue that Matos was afforded due processof law because, in accordance with the requirements espoused bythe Supreme Court in Goss, 419 U.S. at 581-82, plaintiff wasafforded (1) oral notice of the charges against her, (2) anexplanation of the evidence and (3) an opportunity to present herside of the story.

The United States Supreme Court held in Goss that a student'sright to public education is a property interest that isprotected by the Due Process Clause. Id. at 574. A studentfacing suspension, therefore, at the very minimum "must be givensome kind of notice and afforded some kind of hearing." Id.at 579. The Supreme Court held that students suspended for tendays or less are entitled to oral or written notice of thecharges and, if the student denies those charges, an explanationof the evidence against him and an opportunity to present hisside of the story. Id. at 581. Significantly, the Supreme Courtrecognized that in the majority of cases the "disciplinarian mayinformally discuss the alleged misconduct with the studentminutes after it has occurred." Id. at 582. In so finding, theSupreme Court held that there need be no delay between the timenotice is given and the time of the hearing. So long as the student is first informed of the accusations, presented with theevidence against him and given an opportunity to state hisversion of the facts, due process requirements are met. Id.

Although the defendants actions here were hasty and perhapseven ill-advised as a policy matter, it is likely that a jurywill find that they complied with the minimal due processrequirements of Goss. Matos clearly had notice of her allegedmisconduct and the evidence supporting it. She has failed to showthat she was not given an opportunity to explain her version ofthe events before she was suspended. Indeed, taking the facts inher complaint and supporting affidavits as true, it is verylikely that she had ample opportunity to explain her side of thestory, because, according to the complaint, defendants did notsuspend Matos until after her mother had been summoned to, andarrived at, Gaw's office. Furthermore, defendants contend thatMatos had an opportunity to explain her actions to both Gaw anddefendant Assistant Principal James Hastings before she wassuspended and Matos's complaint and affidavits do not refute thatcontention. Therefore, Matos has not demonstrated a likelihood ofsuccess on the merits of her due process claim.

B. Fourth Amendment

Matos argues that she was deprived of her constitutional rightnot to be subjected to an unreasonable search. The FourthAmendment protects students from unreasonable searches by publicschool officials. See New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325,333 (1985). An expectation of privacy that a student has atschool, however, must be balanced by the state's "substantial" interestin maintaining discipline on school grounds. Id. at 339.Consequently, whether the search of a student is legal dependsupon its reasonableness under the circumstances. Id. at 341-42.Whether a search is justified depends, in part, upon whether itis reasonable to believe that the search will yield evidence thatthe student has violated the law or a rule of the school. Id.

It is likely that a jury will find that Matos had no reasonableexpectation of privacy in the subject statement. That statementwas written in response to a school assignment on a schoolcomputer and printed on a school printer, all in plain view ofFoley and her classmates. Furthermore, it is customary for theteacher to review class assignments for feedback and gradingafter the students print them. Under these circumstances, thefact that plaintiff put the assignment in her personal journal,as she alleges, or on her desk partially underneath the journal,as defendants allege, is of no constitutional import.

Assuming arguendo that plaintiff had a reasonable expectationof privacy in the paper, the "search" was very likely warrantedunder the circumstances because it was reasonable for the teacherto believe, once Matos refused to show her the paper, that Matoshad violated a school policy by using the computer for a"non-school-related purpose" and that the teacher was thereforeentitled to take possession of the paper. Matos clearly has notdemonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of her Fourth Amendment claim.

C. First Amendment

Matos's claim that she was denied her right to privacy underthe First Amendment is wholly unsupported and therefore she hasnot demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of herFirst Amendment claim.

Conclusion

Matos has failed to satisfy her burden of establishing alikelihood of success on any of her claims over which this Courtchooses to exercise subject matter jurisdiction and herapplication for a preliminary injunction will, therefore, bedenied.

ORDER

For the foregoing reasons, Matos's application for apreliminary injunction (Docket No. 11) is DENIED.

So ordered.

1. Request No. 3 is now moot because the suspension wascompleted on January 14, 2003.

2. Plaintiff addresses neither her equal protection claim normost of her state law claims in her application for a preliminaryinjunction and, because this Court would decline jurisdictionover the entire case if the federal claims were later dismissed,its analysis is confined to plaintiff's remaining federal lawclaims.

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