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CARLINO v. GLOUCESTR CITY HIGH SCHOOL

August 2, 1999

JOSEPH CARLINO, JR., JOSEPH CARLINO, SR., ELIZABETH CARLINO, KYLE ROSSELL, CHERYL ROSSELL, ELWOOD WRIGLEY, JOANNE WRIGLEY, STEVEN BURKHARDT AND KATHLEEN BURKHARDT, TODD EVANS, ROBERT EVANS, AND MILDRED EVANS, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
GLOUCESTER CITY HIGH SCHOOL, DR. RONALD PRITCHETT, JAMES HETHERINGTON, GLOUCESTOR CITY BOARD OF EDUCATION, SHIRLEY CLEARY, SUSAN ALLGEIER, LEROY KRAMER, BARBARA STOUT, STANLEY BOOTH, CHRIS CONNELLY, BOARD PRESIDENT EDWARD C. HUBBS, BOARD VICE-PRESIDENT LOUISA W. LLEWELLYN, ROBERT BENNETT, SANDRA LYNCH COWGILL, WILLIAM F. FISHER III, PATRICK J. HAGAN, EDWARD L. HUTCHINSON, DANNY O'BRIEN, JR., JOSEPH SCHILI, MARGERY WADE, FORT MAGRUDER INN AND CONFERENCE CENTER, INTERSTATE HOTELS CORP., JOHN TRAVATO, SECURITY OFFICER DOE #1, JOHN DOES 4-250, JANE DOES 1-250, ABC PARTNERSHIPS 1-50 AND XYZ CORPS., INDIVIDUALS, JOINTLY, SEVERALLY, AND IN THE ALTERNATIVE, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Orlofsky, District Judge.

            OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

The Civil Rights Act of 1871, codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1983,*fn2 was enacted pursuant to Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment,*fn3 to protect the rights secured to our citizens by the Constitution and laws of the United States. See Mitchum v. Foster, 407 U.S. 225, 238, 92 S.Ct. 2151, 32 L.Ed.2d 705 (1972) (holding that the Civil Rights Act of 1871, codified as § 1983, was "enacted for the express purpose of `enforc[ing] the Provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment'") (alteration in original) (quoting 17 Stat. 13 (1871)). It has served as a bulwark of liberty against persons who act "under color of state law" to deprive individuals of our most cherished constitutional rights. 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

In this case, a lawyer, who should have known better, has trivialized the Civil Rights Act of 1871, and the constitutional rights it was designed to vindicate, by filing a lawsuit that is both silly and foolish. He has invoked the Constitution and laws of the United States to protect the "rights" of unruly high school seniors who became drunk and disorderly on a Senior Class Trip, and were subsequently punished by exclusion from their high school graduation ceremony, although they were allowed to graduate and receive their diplomas.

One would have thought that the students and their parents would have been too embarrassed to seek the protection of a federal court over this tempest in a teapot. Instead, they have shamelessly proceeded in this Court as if the fate of our Republic were at stake. I have no authority to discipline these errant teenagers, and apparently their parents have chosen to litigate, rather than "parent." I can, however, discipline their attorney, Samuel A. Malat, Esq., for his conduct in filing this action.

Based upon my review of the record and the law underlying the claims asserted in this case, I am led, inexorably, to the conclusion that Plaintiffs' counsel, Samuel A. Malat, Esq., has violated his obligation under Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civi1 Procedure, to perform a reasonable investigation before filing an otherwise frivolous claim. Accordingly, I will impose sanctions upon Mr. Malat, pursuant to Rule 11, by requiring him to attend two continuing legal education courses, one addressing professionalism and the rules of professional conduct, and a second course in federal civil practice and procedure. Mr. Malat shall attend and complete these continuing legal education courses within 18 months and file an affidavit with this Court stating that he has successfully completed both courses. In addition, Mr. Malat shall pay a fine of $500 to the Clerk of the Court within 30 days from the entry of the order filed concurrently with this Opinion.

Plaintiffs, Joseph Carlino, Jr., Kyle Rossell, Elwood Wrigley, Steven Burkhardt ("Student Plaintiffs"), who are former Gloucester City High School students, and their parents, Joseph Carlino, Sr., Elizabeth Carlino, Cheryl Rossell, Joanne Wrigley, and Kathleen Burkhardt ("Parent Plaintiffs"), have filed a complaint, alleging that the School Board and various school officials violated the students' constitutional right by denying them the opportunity to participate in graduation exercises as a punishment for consuming alcohol during their senior class field trip to Busch Gardens, in Williamsburg, Virginia. Parent Plaintiffs allege that they suffered emotional distress as a result of their inability to attend their children's high school graduation. Additionally, Plaintiff, Todd Evans ("Evans"), another former Gloucester City High School student, alleges that he suffered emotional distress when he was accidentally left behind at Busch Gardens and, as a result, he was forced to take a taxicab back to the hotel where the students were staying.*fn4 Plaintiff, Elizabeth Carlino, the mother of Joseph Carlino, Jr., also alleges that her rights under the First Amendment and under the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 34:19-3, were violated when she lost her position as freshman field hockey coach as a result of her criticism of the high school principal following these events.

Defendant, Dr. Ronald Pritchett ("Dr. Pritchett"), the principal of Gloucester City High School, has moved for summary judgment on all claims. Defendants, Gloucester City High School ("GCHS"), Gloucester City Board of Education, James Hetherington ("Superintendent Hetherington"), who is the Superintendent of Gloucester City Public Schools, Shirley Cleary, who is the Attendance Officer of GCHS, Susan Allgeier, who is Dr. Pritchett's secretary, Leroy (Lee) Kramer, who is a guidance counselor at GCHS, Stanley Booth, who is a teacher and the senior class advisor at Gloucester, Barbara Stout, who is a GCHS teacher, and Gloucester City Board of Education and its members, Edward C. Hubbs, Louisa W. Llewellyn, Sandra Lynch Cowgill, William F. Fisher, III, Patrick J. Hagan, Danny O'Brien, Jr., Edward L. Hutchinson, Margery Wade, Chris Connelly (collectively, the "GCHS Defendants"), have cross-moved for summary judgment on all counts.*fn5

This Court, on its own motion, issued an Order to Show Cause, filed February 2, 1999, requiring Plaintiffs "to show cause why counts 1, 3-5, and 7-10 of the Amended Complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim, and why sanctions should not be imposed against Samuel A. Malat, Esq., pursuant to [Federal Rule of Civil Procedure] 11, 28 U.S.C. § 1927, and the Court's inherent powers." Order, filed Feb. 2, 1999, at 1. This Court has jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, 1343, and 1367, because Plaintiffs assert claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, as well as pendant state law claims.

For the reasons set forth below, I hold that the two claims for emotional distress and the claim under the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act are statutorily barred and, therefore, frivolous. As a result, I will dismiss Count Four, containing Todd Evans's claim for emotional distress, Count Five, containing Parent Plaintiffs' claim for emotional distress, and part of Count Six, containing Elizabeth Carlino's claim under the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act. Further, I find that Plaintiffs have failed to present sufficient evidence supporting their equal protection claim (Count One), their free exercise claim (part of Count Two), and their due process claim (Count Three) and, as a result, in the absence of a genuine material issue of disputed fact, I will grant the motions for summary judgment of Dr. Pritchett and the GCHS Defendants on those claims.

In addition, I find that the individual GCHS Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity with respect to Elizabeth Carlino's claim for retaliation under the First Amendment. Thus, I will grant the motion for summary judgment of the GCHS Defendants' on Count Six, as it is asserted against the individual GCHS Defendants. Pursuant to the Order to Show Cause, filed by this Court on February 2, 1999, I will also dismiss Counts Seven, Eight, Nine, and Ten, for failure to state a claim, because these claims do not even satisfy the minimal pleading requirements set forth in Rule 8*fn6 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

As a result of these holdings, only the following two claims remain: (1) Student Plaintiffs' Establishment Clause claim asserted against Dr. Pritchett, Superintendent Hetherington, and the Gloucester City Board of Education and its members; and (2) Elizabeth Carlino's First Amendment retaliation claim asserted against the Gloucester City Board of Education.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs, Joseph Carlino, Jr., Steven Burkhardt, Elwood William Wrigley, Kyle Rossell, and Todd Evans, then seniors at Gloucester City High School, all attended the Senior Class Trip to Busch Gardens, located in Williamsburg, Virginia. Every student planning to go on the trip had to sign and obtain a parent's signature on an authorization form, which stated, in relevant part:

    Possession, distribution, purchase, and[/]or
  consumption of alcoholic beverages, prescriptive [sic]
  drugs not registered with the school nurse or illegal
  drugs are prohibited and will be cause for terminating
  the trip for the person(s) involved. The parents
  and/or student(s) will, assume all legal and financial
  expenses for the trip home.
    Students found guilty of any of the above
  infractions will also be subject, upon return to
  school, to further disciplinary action determined by
  the Administration, and/or Board of Education.
  Specifically, seniors will lose their privilege to
  participate in Commencement Exercises with their class
  on June 17 if found guilty of drugs or alcohol related
  infractions. These students may have to forfeit all
  rights as members of their class.

See Brief on Behalf of Defendant, Dr. Ronald Pritchett, for Summary Judgment ("Pritchett's Brief"), dated Jan. 18, 1999, Ex. A (completed authorization form for all four Student Plaintiffs, except Todd Evans).

The seniors attending the trip and their a chaperones left on Wednesday, May 28, 1997. See id. The group lodged at the Fort Magruder Inn, located in Williamsburg, Virginia, from Wednesday night through the morning of Friday, May 30. see id.*fn7

On May 29, 1997, the students spent the day at Busch Gardens. See Amended Complaint ¶ 63.*fn8 At the end of the day, all of the students on the trip, except Todd Evans, returned to the Fort Magruder Inn as a group on the bus. Evans had mistakenly been "marked present upon the groups' departure from" Busch Gardens, "although he had asked [and had received] permission to enjoy one (1) more ride." Id. ¶ 64. As a result, Evans took a taxicab from the park, back to the hotel. See Pritchett's Brief, Ex. B. Dr. Pritchett reimbursed Evans for the taxicab fare. See id. Nonetheless, Evans claims that he "has been emotionally damaged" by this experience. Amended Complaint ¶ 68.

The students spent the evening of May 29, 1997, at the Fort McGruder Inn. The Student Plaintiffs interpreted this free time as a license to party. One of the boys, Elwood William Wrigley ("Wrigley"), described that night as follows:

  After dinner we decided to take a swim which didn't
  last long because the pool was closing, so we went
  back to our room and we tried to find something to do
  and I guess the only thing on our minds was to find
  some beer so Steve, Joe, and I decided to go to the
  Mobil [gas station] down the street to get some beer
  but before we went we went to the other rooms to see
  if they wanted to put up some money so they could get
  some beer too. . . . [Next] we went to our room and
  Kelly Ridell came and said she wanted some beer, so
  she gave us the money and we went out the front
  entrance of the hotel. It was Joe, Steve, and me. We
  went down to the Mobil and Steve got served and he got
  14 bottle[s] of 40 oz. Colt 45 Double Malt. We decided
  to walk down the tracks so that no cops or any teacher
  could see us back on our way to the hotel. We climbed
  [sic] the beer up the balcony and then walked back
  around so everything looked normal and we actually got
  away with it and it's a good thing we snuck [sic] the
  beer up because Mr. Kramer and Mrs. Cleary were out in
  the hallway. They were out there because it was almost
  time for curfew anyway. When we got back in the room
  there were about ten or eleven people in the room[,
  including] Steve, Kyle, Joe, myself, Danielle, Aja,
  Dana, Nicole, Kelly, Tina and I'm pretty sure there
  was another

  person too. We all started drinking. We were passing
  around two bottles so that the beer wouldn't last too
  long and we could get rid of the bottles[. R]ight
  after they were done[,] I went out on the balcony and
  Mrs. Cleary was out there on the next balcony over and
  we were just talking[. T]hen Joe comes walking out
  with the two empty bottles in his hands[.] Right away
  Joe tried to hide the bottles but it was to[o] late,
  Mrs. Cleary had seen them and she walked around the
  door and started knocking right away. We were
  panic[k]ing and started hiding all the beer bottles
  all over the room. When we finally let her in it was
  her and Mr. Kramer and they took the empty beer
  bottles and another one we had started on and they sat
  us down and told us that they would forget about the
  whole thing. After they left we were still a little
  shook up so we didn't start drinking again right
  away, but we thought everything was cool again so we
  [sic] . . . Oh yeah, when Mrs. Cleary and Mr. Kramer
  came into the room every one I mentioned before was
  still in the room and when they were leaving they told
  everyone to go back to there [sic] rooms. So they saw
  that all of those people were in the room with all of
  the beer at the time and later they just forgot about
  all those other people in the room. But we thought we
  were fine again so we decided to go to someone else's
  room and see if they wanted to sneek [sic] back out
  over to our room because we had a lot of beer left. So
  we snuck [sic] down the balcony and went over to
  Nadine Hoover's room. They said they would come out
  [to our room] . . . We were all talking, drinking and
  just having a good time. That went on for a while[.]
  Then they wanted to go to bed so they left and we
  decided to go back out and look for different people
  so we climbed back down the balcony and headed over
  towards Aja's room. When we got there Kyle and I
  climbed up the balcony to knock[.] When we did[,]
  Mrs. Stout opened the curtain and saw Kyle . . . We
  all took off back to our room[.] When we got back the
  teachers were already knocking on the door . . . [W]e
  opened the door and it was Dr. Pritchett right there
  with Mrs. Cleary, Mr. Kramer, Mr[s]. Stout and the
  rest of the teachers.

Brief on Behalf of Defendants, Gloucester City High School and Gloucester City Board of Education, in Support of Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment ("GCHS Brief"), filed Feb. 1, 1999, Ex. F (Written Statement of Elwood William Wrigley). None of the Student Plaintiffs has denied that they consumed alcohol that night. See, e.g., id., Exs. C-E (Transcripts of Interviews with Steven Burkhardt, Kyle Rossell, and Elwood William Wrigley, in which all three admit that they drank alcohol the night of May 29, 1997). Further, "[d]uring the routine room inspection and check-out at the Fort Magruder Inn, there was evidence that" the four Student Plaintiffs had consumed the alcohol contained in "the Hospitality Refreshment Center" in their room. See Pritchett's Brief Ex. C (Letters from Dr. Ronald Pritchett to Parent Plaintiffs, dated June 2, 1997).

As Wrigley's statement reveals, and as the Amended Complaint confirms, Student Plaintiffs allege that other students had been drinking that evening. See Amended Complaint ¶ 40. Specifically, they allege that "numerous other students participated in drinking, opening liquor cabinets and the violation of curfew and the Defendant Chaperons ha[d] full knowledge of these other violations." Id. Wrigley wrote "when Mrs. Clearly and Mr. Kramer came into the room . . . there were about ten or eleven people in the room[, including] Steve, Kyle, Joe, myself, Danielle, Aja, Dana, Nicole, Kelly, Tina and I'm pretty sure there was another person too." GCHS, Ex. F.

On the morning of Friday, May 30, 1997, Dr. Pritchett discovered empty bottles of alcohol in the trash and bottles missing from the "Hospitality Refreshment Center" in the hotel room that the four boys had shared.*fn9 See id., Ex. B. In response to his discovery, Dr. Pritchett questioned the four Student Plaintiffs, none of whom denied drinking the previous night. See id.

On the following Monday, June 2, 1997, Dr. Pritchett sent a letter to the Parent Plaintiffs, explaining:

    I regret the necessity in corresponding to you
  regarding an incident on the Senior Class Trip,
  specifically, Friday May 30, 1997. During the routine
  room inspection and check-out at Fort Magruder Inn,
  there was evidence that the Hospitality Refreshment
  Center was opened in [your son's] room and items
  missing from the inventory. I personally summoned the
  hospitality supervisor of the hotel assistance. Hotel
  management assured me each Hospitality Refreshment
  Center was inventoried and securely locked and
  sealed. Only a special key, obtained at the front
  desk, would be available to open the hospitality
  center, and provisions were made that no student had
  access to this room service.
    I have enclosed a list of the itemized inventory of
  missing food and beverages. Unfortunately, some
  included alcohol. I have no direct evidence of what
  person(s) in the room consumed the food and/or
  beverages. I am asking you to discuss this matter with
  your son. All expenses for the missing items were paid
  by the students (to the hotel) before our departure. I
  am anticipating a review of this matter by the
  Gloucester City Board of Education on Thursday
  evening, June 5, at which time any disciplinary action
  may or may not be determined.

Id., Ex. C.

At the June 5, 1997, Gloucester City Board of Education meeting, "Dr. Pritchett[] reported on the Senior Class trip concerning late night student activities and the consumption of alcohol." Id., Ex. D. In particular, Dr. Pritchett informed the Board of Education that the Student Plaintiffs "left the hotel[,] purchased beer," and "broke[] into" the "hospitality refreshment centers" to consume the "alcohol and chips" contained in them. Id. "Dr. Pritchett reported that [the Student Plaintiffs] received [two-]day suspensions and [he] recommended that they not participate in graduation exercises." Id. The "[s]tudent representative" in attendance at the meeting "commented that if students are not punished now, future students would feel they could get away with misbehaving in later years." Id.

On June 11, 1997, six days after the Gloucester City Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Hetherington sent a letter to the Parent Plaintiffs, informing them that:

  The Board of Education upheld the decision not to let
  [your son] participate in Graduation. Your son can
  participate in Baccalaureate by requesting permission
  from the City Ministerium.
    If you want to make accusations against some other
  child or chaperone you should do so in writing and I
  will start an investigation.
    If you would like to appeal the Board's decision you
  should obtain an attorney and appeal to the Commission
  of Education for "An Emergent Relief Hearing" before
  an administrative law judge.

Id., Ex. E. None of the Student or Parent Plaintiffs appealed this decision.

Instead, the Carlino family protested by posting a sign on the front of their house, which read, in substance: "The Perfect Role Model, Not GHS Principal" — suggesting that Dr. Pritchett was a poor role model for the students of GCHS. Plaintiffs' Opposition to Defendant, Pritchett's Motion for Summary Judgment as to All Issues ("Plaintiffs' First Opposition"), dated Jan. 22, 1999, Ex. D (undated newspaper article from the Courier-Post)*fn10 The Carlino family believed that Dr. Pritchett was not a good role model, because Student Plaintiffs had observed Dr. Pritchett drinking during the senior class field trip. See GCHS Brief, Ex. F (Written Statement of Elwood William Wrigley); see also Amended Complaint ¶ 11. Thus, rather than challenging the decision to exclude Joseph Carlino, Jr., from the graduation ceremony, the Carlino family posted a sign in front of their house questioning Dr. Pritchett's fitness to punish students for drinking alcohol when he himself had done so during the trip.

In response to this sign, at its July 8, 1997, meeting, the Gloucester City Board of Education "rescinded [Elizabeth Carlino's] appointment as Freshmen Field Hockey Coach for the 1997-98 school year." Plaintiff's First Opposition, Ex. E (Letter from James H. Hetherington to Elizabeth Carlino, dated July 9, 1997). The President of the Gloucester City Board of Education, Edward Hubbs, "cited `Problems' as a reason for the decision." Id. (copy of an excerpt of an unlabeled, undated, newspaper article). On January 13, 1998, the Gloucester City Board of Education paid Elizabeth Carlino $1,897, the "Freshmen Hockey coach stipend of [the] Teachers' Agreement [for] 1997-1998 . . . to settle a grievance." Pritchett's Brief, Ex. H (Gloucester City Board of Education, Minutes of January 13, 1998, Meeting).

    You are aware that the Supreme Court has ruled that
  public schools may not sponsor Baccalaureate
  Services. Our senior class has voted overwhelmingly to
  have one. Would the Gloucester City Ministerium wish
  to continue to sponsor the Baccalaureate Services? If
  it does; we will need an official request for the use
  of the high school auditorium by the ministerium for
  the Service on Friday evening, June 13 at 7:00 p.m.
  The assignments for the Baccalaureate Service are as
  follows: two clergy, one for the Responsive Reading &
  Prayer and one for the Sermon, Invocation, and
  Benediction. I will need to know the clergy
  assignments for the Baccalaureate Service by Friday,
  May 30 to enable us to meet and finalize plans for the
  Service.

Id. As part of the punishment imposed by the Board of Education, Superintendent Hetherington required each Student Plaintiff to obtain "permission from the City Ministerium." Id., Ex. E. Joseph Carlino, Jr., obtained such permission from Rev. Harry J. Jordan, of St. Mary's Church, however, when Joseph Carlino, Jr., attempted to attend the Baccalaureate Service, he was told by Dr. Pritchett that he should leave the school premises. See Amended Complaint ¶ 99.

Plaintiffs filed their Complaint on June 15, 1998, and their Amended Complaint on November 23, 1998. In their Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs essentially allege six causes of action: (1) an equal protection claim on behalf of the Student Plaintiffs; (2) a religious freedom claim on behalf of the Student Plaintiffs; (3) a due process claim on behalf of the Student Plaintiffs; (4) an emotional distress claim on behalf of Todd Evans; (5) an emotional distress claim on behalf of the Parent Plaintiffs; and (6) a retaliation claim on behalf of Elizabeth Carlino. Dr. Pritchett and the GCHS Defendants (collectively, the "Moving Defendants") have moved for summary judgment. Additionally, on February 2, 1999, this Court issued an Order to Show Cause why Plaintiffs' equal protection, due process, emotional distress, and fictitious defendant claims should not be dismissed. I will now address both motions for summary judgment, as well as the issues raised by the Order to Show Cause.

III. LEGAL STANDARD GOVERNING THE MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND THE ORDER TO SHOW CAUSE

Because all of the claims contained in Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint have been fully briefed as part of the Defendants' two motions for summary judgment, I will apply the legal standard governing motions for summary judgment to the issues raised by the Order to Show Cause, as well as to the two motions for summary judgment. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b) (permitting the court to convert a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted into a motion for summary judgment where all parties have been "given [a] reasonable opportunity to present all material made pertinent to such a motion by Rule 56").

A party seeking summary judgment must "show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); see, e.g., Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986); Reitz v. County of Bucks, 125 F.3d 139, 143 (3d Cir. 1997); Hersh v. Allen Prod. Co., 789 F.2d 230, 232 (3d Cir. 1986). In deciding whether there is a disputed issue of material fact, the Court must view the underlying facts and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. See, e.g., Pennsylvania Coal Ass'n v. Babbitt, 63 F.3d 231, 236 (3d Cir. 1995); Hancock Indus. v. Schaeffer, 811 F.2d 225, 231 (3d Cir. 1987).

Under the rule, a movant must be awarded summary judgment on all properly supported issues identified in its motion, except those for which the non-moving party has provided evidence to show that a question of material fact remains. Once the moving party has properly supported its showing of no triable issue of fact and of an entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, "its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986) ("By its very terms, this standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion . . .; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.") (emphasis in original).

What the non-moving party must do is "go beyond the pleadings and by [its] own affidavits, or by the `depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file,' designate `specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)); see also Lujan v. National Wildlife Fed., 497 U.S. 871, 888, 110 S.Ct. 3177, 111 L.Ed.2d 695 (1990) ("The object of [Rule 56(e)] is not to replace conclusory allegations of the First Amended Complaint . . . with conclusory allegations of an affidavit."); Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992) ("[T]o raise a genuine issue of material fact . . . the [non-moving party] need not match, item for item, each piece of evidence proffered by the movant," but rather must exceed the "`mere scintilla' threshold."), cert. denied, 507 U.S. 912, 113 S.Ct. 1262, 122 L.Ed.2d 659 (1993). If the non-moving party fails to oppose the motion by written objection, memorandum, affidavits and other evidence, the Court "will accept as true all material facts set forth by the moving party with appropriate record support." Anchorage Assocs. v. Virgin Islands Bd. of Tax Rev., 922 F.2d 168, 175 (3d Cir. 1990) (quoting Jaroma v. Massey, 873 F.2d 17, 21 (1st Cir. 1989)).

Even where the non-moving party has failed to establish a triable issue of fact, summary judgment will not be granted unless "appropriate." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); see Anchorage Assocs., 922 F.2d at 175. Rule 56(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires that the case be evaluated on its merits, with summary judgment being granted for the movant only if it is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. See Anchorage Assocs., 922 F.2d at 175.

IV. DISCUSSION

A. Count One: Student Plaintiffs' Equal Protection Claim

In the Amended Complaint, Student Plaintiffs allege that they "have been discriminated against by Defendants in that the treatment afforded them differed from that of other such students in the same situation." Amended Complaint ¶ 41.

"The Equal Protection Clause commands that no State shall `deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.'" Vacco v. Quill, 521 U.S. 793, 117 S.Ct. 2293, 2297, 138 L.Ed.2d 834 (1997) (quoting U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1). It is well-established equal protection law that "a classification neither involving fundamental rights nor proceeding along suspect lines is accorded a strong presumption of validity." Heller v. Doe, 509 U.S. 312, 319-20, 113 S.Ct. 2637, 125 L.Ed.2d 257 (1993). "Such a classification cannot run afoul of the Equal Protection Clause if there is a rational relationship between the disparity of treatment and some legitimate governmental purpose." Id. at 320, 113 S.Ct. 2637; see also City of Chicago v. Morales, ___ U.S. ___, 119 S.Ct. 1849, 1872, 144 L.Ed.2d 67 (1999) (Scalia, J., dissenting) ("Of course every activity, even scratching one's head, can be called a `constitutional right' if one means by that term nothing more than the fact that the activity is covered (as all are) by the Equal Protection Clause, so that those who engage in it cannot be singled out without [a] `rational basis.'") (quoting FCC v. Beach Communications, Inc., 508 U.S. 307, 313, 113 S.Ct. 2096, 124 L.Ed.2d 211 (1993)).

Student Plaintiffs do not contend that they are members of a suspect class or that the ability to attend one's high school graduation ceremony involves a fundamental right. See Palmer v. Merluzzi, 868 F.2d 90, 96 (3d Cir. 1989) ("Since participation in extra-curricular activities is not a fundamental right under the Constitution and since Palmer's suspension was not based on a suspect classification, . . . we must examine Palmer's [equal protection claim] under the `rational relationship test.'") (citation omitted). Instead, Student Plaintiffs argue that, "[a]lthough members of a `discrete class' are entitled to a higher level of scrutiny, [Student] Plaintiffs have not included themselves in any such class simply because it is plain that the treatment afforded them was different from the treatment of other students in the same situation." Plaintiffs' Response in Opposition to Court's Order to Show Cause ("Plaintiffs' Response"), dated Feb. 23, 1999, at 5-6; see also Plaintiff's Opposition at 6-7. In other words, Student Plaintiffs claim that they have been the victims of selective enforcement.

"The Equal Protection Clause prohibits selective enforcement `based upon an unjustifiable standard such as race, religion, or other arbitrary classification.'" United States v. Batchelder, 442 U.S. 114, 125 n. 9, 99 S.Ct. 2198, 60 L.Ed.2d 755 (1979) (quoting Oyler v. Boles, 368 U.S. 448, 456, 82 S.Ct. 501, 7 L.Ed.2d 446 (1962)). Student Plaintiffs do not claim that the Moving Defendants punished them as a result of their race or religion. In the absence of an animus-based motive, I must consider Student Plaintiffs' selective enforcement claim under the "rational basis" test. Student Plaintiffs argue that "there was no rational basis for the severity of punishment that was delivered to these particular students . . . [w]hen other students who did the same, or worse" were not punished at all. Plaintiffs' Response at 6.

There is evidence in the summary judgment record that another student, Chris Johnson, purchased beer with a fake military identification card. See Plaintiffs' Second Opposition, Ex. A (Affidavits of Steven Burkhardt and Elwood William Wrigley, dated Jan. 28, 1999, stating that Chris Johnson purchased beer with a fake military identification card). There is no evidence, however, that Dr. Pritchett or any of the GCHS Defendants had any knowledge that any student other than the four Student Plaintiffs purchased beer.*fn12 Indeed, Dr. Pritchett, his secretary, Susan Allgeier, and one of the teachers chaperoning the trip, Barbara Stout, all stated that they were not "aware of any student, other than the four, who used alcohol on the Williamsburg trip." Pritchett's Brief, Ex. B. Additionally, Superintendent Hetherington informed the Parent Plaintiffs: "If you want make accusations against some other child or chaperone you should do so in writing and I will start an investigation." GCHS Brief, Ex. G (Letters from James H. Hetherington, to Parent Plaintiffs, dated June 11, 1997). None of the parents came forth with any evidence. It was completely rational for the Moving Defendants to punish only those students for whom the school officials had proof that the student in question had consumed and purchased alcohol on the Senior Class Trip.

Furthermore, Wrigley's written statement indicates that the Student Plaintiffs continued to drink after being caught by the chaperones, who warned them to stop. See GCHS Brief, Ex. F. Thus, even assuming that other students did consume alcohol during the trip, the Moving Defendants may have believed that the conduct of the Student Plaintiffs was more egregious and, therefore, merited punishment, whereas the conduct of the other students who consumed alcohol did not demand punishment. "Where, as here, there are plausible reasons for [the Defendants'] action, [my] inquiry is at an end." See United States R.R. Retirement Board v. Fritz, 449 U.S. 166, 179, 101 S.Ct. 453, 66 L.Ed.2d 368 (1980); see also Flemming v. Nestor, 363 U.S. 603, 612, 80 S.Ct. 1367, 4 L.Ed.2d 1435 (1960) (holding that, in the court's analysis of a governmental decision under the rational basis standard, "it is, of course, constitutionally irrelevant whether this reasoning in fact underlay [a governmental] decision").

Finally, even if the Moving Defendants incorrectly determined that only the Student Plaintiffs purchased and consumed alcohol on the Senior Class Trip, or that only the conduct of these four students warranted punishment, the GCHS Defendants correctly observe that they "are entitled to qualified immunity pursuant to federal law." Brief on Behalf of Hetherington, Cleary, Allgeier, Kramer, Stout, Hubbs, Llewelyn, Lynch, Cowgull, Fisher, Hagan, Hutchinson, O'Brien, Wade, Booth, Connelly and GCHS ("GCHS Immunity Brief"), dated Jan. 21, 1999, at 4. In Wood v. Strickland, the Supreme Court held that school board members are entitled to qualified immunity under § 1983, because "[c]ommon-law tradition . . . and strong public-policy reasons [require] a construction of § 1983 [that] extend[s] a qualified good-faith immunity to school board members from liability for damages under the section." Wood v. Strickland, 420 U.S. 308, 316, 95 S.Ct. 992, 43 L.Ed.2d 214 (1975), overruled on other grounds, Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982). The Court concluded that:

  As with executive officers faced with instances of
  civil disorder, school officials, confronted with
  student behavior causing or threatening disruption,
  also have an "obvious need for prompt action, and
  decisions must be made in reliance on factual
  information supplied by others." [Scheuer v. Rhodes,
  416 U.S. 232, 246, 94 S.Ct. 1683, 40 L.Ed.2d 90
  (1974).] Liability for damages for every action which
  is found subsequently to have been violative of a
  student's constitutional rights and to have caused
  compensable injury would unfairly impose upon the
  school decisionmaker the burden of mistakes made in
  good faith in the course of exercising his discretion
  within the scope of his official duties. School board
  members, among other duties, must judge whether there
  have been violations of school regulations and, if
  so, the appropriate sanctions for the violations.
  Denying any measure of immunity in these circumstances
  "would contribute not to principled and fearless
  decisionmaking but to intimidation." Pierson v. Ray,
  [386 U.S. 547, 554, 87 S.Ct. 1213 (1967)].

Id. at 319, 95 S.Ct. 992. In order to use the shield of qualified immunity, the Moving Defendants "must show that their conduct did `not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'" Stoneking v. Bradford Area Sch. Dist., 882 F.2d 720, 726 (3d Cir. 1989) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982)), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 1044, 110 S.Ct. 840, 107 L.Ed.2d 835 (1990). "Under the test announced in Harlow, reasonableness is measured by an objective standard; arguments that the defendants desired to handle or subjectively believed that they had handled the incidents properly are irrelevant." Id. (citing Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 641, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 97 L.Ed.2d 523 (1987)). Thus, the Moving Defendants "are entitled to qualified immunity if reasonable officials in the [D]efendants' position at the relevant time could have believed, in light of clearly established law, that their conduct comported with established legal standards." Id.

As I concluded above, the conduct of Dr. Pritchett and the GCHS Defendants did comport with clearly established equal protection jurisprudence. Thus, I am compelled to conclude that any reasonable official acting in the same capacity as any of the Moving Defendants would have believed that the Moving Defendants did not violate the Equal Protection Clause. Dr. Pritchett and the GCHS Defendants had a rational basis upon which to impose punishment only on the Student Plaintiffs. To the extent that this decision resulted from reliance upon incorrect factual information supplied by others, see Wood, 420 U.S. at 319, 95 S.Ct. 992, Dr. Pritchett and the GCHS Defendants are protected by qualified immunity, because their reliance on such information was reasonable under the circumstances. Accordingly, I will grant the motions of the Moving Defendants for summary judgment on Count One of the Amended Complaint, which alleges a claim under § 1983 for a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

B. Counts Two and Eleven: Student Plaintiffs' Free Exercise and Separation of Church and State Claims

Student Plaintiffs allege that the Moving Defendants have violated their First Amendment religious freedom rights by prohibiting them from attending the Baccalaureate Service, which is a religious ceremony. See Amended Complaint, Counts Two & Eleven. In response, Dr. Pritchett argues that "this baccalaureate mass [was] provided by an outside organization, [and Dr. Pritchett] did not prohibit the students from attending the same." Pritchett's Brief at 9. The GCHS Defendants contend that they are protected by qualified ...


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