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Higgins v. Saavedra

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

June 15, 2017

RACHEL HIGGINS, as Guardian ad Litem for B.P., a minor child, Plaintiff,
BRITTNY SAAVEDRA, in her personal capacity acting under color of state law; DEBORAH GARTMAN, in her personal capacity acting under color of state law; MARK A. GARCIA, in his personal capacity acting under color of state law; SHONN SCHROER, in his personal capacity acting under color of state law; CYNTHIA SOO HOO, in her personal capacity acting under color of state law; and ALBUQUERQUE PUBLIC SCHOOLS DISTRICT, Defendants.


          William P. Lynch United States Magistrate Judge.

         In the First Amended Complaint for Civil Rights Violations (Doc. 40) (Complaint), Plaintiff Rachel Higgins (Plaintiff) asserts claims as Guardian ad Litem on behalf of B.P., a minor child who was a student at West Mesa High School (WMHS) in the Albuquerque Public Schools District (APS). Compl. ¶¶ 1, 4, 13. Defendants are APS, Cynthia Soo Hoo, the Executive Director of Compliance for the Special Education Department at APS (ED Soo Hoo), Brittny Saavedra, the Head Varsity Cheerleading Coach at WMHS (Coach Saavedra), Deborah Gartman, the Assistant Principal at WMHS (Asst. Principal Gartman), Mark A. Garcia, the Principal at WMHS (Principal Garcia), and Shonn Schroer, the Athletic Director at WMHS (Athletic Director Schroer) (together, Defendants). Compl. ¶¶ 3-9.

         Plaintiff alleges that B.P., who was a member of the WMHS varsity cheerleading squad, was sexually harassed and intimidated by other members of the team while on a school-sponsored trip and at WMHS. Compl. ¶¶ 14, 43, 126. Plaintiff asserts that Defendants violated B.P.'s rights under the Equal Protection Clause when they attempted to extort a release from liability for the harassment by withholding B.P.'s transfer to another school. Compl. ¶¶ 128-131, 146-147, 152. Defendants have moved for summary judgment on Plaintiff's equal protection claim. (Doc. 41.) Plaintiff has responded in opposition, and has also moved for denial or deferral of the summary judgment motion in order to permit discovery. (Docs. 49 and 50.) Because there are material facts in dispute and Plaintiff has not yet had the opportunity to conduct discovery, I will grant Plaintiff's Rule 56(d) Motion and will defer ruling on the summary judgment motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The following facts are undisputed unless otherwise noted. B.P., B.P.'s younger brother, and B.P.'s friend were all students at WMHS. Summary Judgment Mot., Undisputed Material Facts (UMF) ¶¶ 1-2, 4. At WMHS, B.P. received accommodations for special education needs related to dyslexia, including extra time during testing and not being penalized for spelling errors, according to an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). UMF ¶ 5; Summary Judgment Resp., Plaintiff's Counterstatement of Undisputed Material Facts (PCUMF) ¶ I; Ex. 1, Affidavit of Myra Pizarro, ¶ 12. B.P.'s brother and friend did not receive special education services. Summary Judgment Mot. at 17.

         On July 25, 2015, members of the WMHS cheerleading squad took nude photographs and video of B.P. without her permission. PCUMF ¶ A. Following this incident, B.P., B.P.'s younger brother, and B.P.'s friend were all bullied and sexually harassed at WMHS. PCUMF ¶¶ B-C. As a result they each requested to transfer to another school. PCUMF ¶ C; UMF ¶ 1. On October 7, 2015, B.P.'s mother submitted transfer requests for B.P. and for B.P.'s brother, both listing student safety concerns as the reason and requesting to transfer from WMHS to Albuquerque High School (AHS). UMF ¶ 1. The transfer for B.P.'s friend was approved and she transferred out of WMHS without incident. UMF ¶ 4; PCUMF ¶ R. Early in January 2016, B.P.'s mother learned that the transfer to AHS had been approved for B.P.'s brother but not for B.P. PCUMF ¶ H.

         B.P.'s mother went to AHS to speak to the principal about the transfers, and he agreed to accept B.P. as a transfer student. UMF ¶ 9. But the parties dispute whether this agreement constituted approval of the transfer and whether AHS had the capacity at that time to accept a student with B.P.'s special education needs. UMF ¶¶ 6, 10; PCUMF ¶¶ I, K, L, M, P. Defendants assert that the special education program at AHS was over capacity, other special education students were on a waiting list ahead of B.P. to transfer into AHS if space became available, and neither the APS Transfer Office nor the AHS principal had the authority to approve a transfer into an already full program or to ignore an IEP by disregarding B.P.'s special education status and enrolling her as a regular education student. UMF ¶¶ 6-8, 10; Summary Judgment Reply ¶ I. Plaintiff contends that AHS had the capacity to meet B.P.'s educational needs, which required minimal accommodation, and that B.P.'s transfer was approved by the AHS principal. PCUMF ¶¶ I, K.

         B.P.'s parents withdrew B.P. from WMHS, but then received voicemail and email messages from ED Soo Hoo indicating that B.P. would not be allowed to transfer to AHS unless her parents signed a settlement agreement releasing Defendants from liability in relation to the harassment B.P. had suffered at WMHS. PCUMF ¶¶ L-P. Plaintiff asserts that Defendants reversed B.P.'s previously approved transfer to AHS in order to obtain a release of B.P.'s legal claims. PCUMF ¶¶ M-P. Plaintiff argues that in doing so, Defendants violated B.P.'s equal protection rights by “inflict[ing] a cost or burden on [her] without imposing it on those who are similarly situated in material respects, and . . . without any conceivable basis other than a wholly illegitimate motive.” Summary Judgment Resp. at 15 (quoting Jicarilla Apache Nation v. Rio Arriba Cty., 440 F.3d 1202, 1209 (10th Cir. 2006)). But Defendants maintain that B.P.'s transfer had not been approved, and could not be approved through the normal APS transfer process because AHS did not have room in its special education program to admit B.P. UMF ¶¶ 8, 10- 11; Summary Judgment Reply ¶¶ H-I, L-M, P, S. They contend that B.P. could have transferred without delay to any other high school that did have space in its special education program, and that ED Soo Hoo offered to force B.P.'s transfer to AHS despite the lack of space as a permissible means of negotiating the settlement of B.P.'s claims. UMF ¶¶ 11-12. Defendants argue that they are entitled to summary judgment because Plaintiff has failed to state a claim for a violation of equal protection and because they are entitled to qualified immunity. Plaintiff asks the Court to defer or deny the summary judgment motion because Plaintiff has not had the opportunity to discover facts essential to the claim.


         Summary judgment may be granted if the moving party shows “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). “When applying this standard, [the Court] view[s] the evidence and draw[s] reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Scull v. New Mexico, 236 F.3d 588, 595 (10th Cir. 2000) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, when a defendant raises qualified immunity as a defense, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant's actions violated a clearly-established constitutional or statutory right before the defendant will bear the traditional burden. See Scull, 236 F.3d at 595.

         Summary judgment should not be granted “where the nonmoving party has not had the opportunity to discover information that is essential to [her] opposition.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 n.5 (1986). Rule 56(d) allows a nonmovant to seek deferral or denial of a summary judgment ruling pending discovery. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(d). Under Rule 56(d), nonmoving parties who need additional discovery to respond to a motion for summary judgment must present an affidavit “identifying (1) the probable facts not available, (2) why those facts cannot be presented currently, (3) what steps have been taken to obtain these facts, and (4) how additional time will enable the party to obtain those facts and rebut the motion for summary judgment.” Valley Forge Ins. Co. v. Health Care Mgmt. Partners, Ltd., 616 F.3d 1086, 1096 (10th Cir. 2010) (internal brackets and quotation marks omitted).

         “Requests for further discovery should ordinarily be treated liberally.” Cerveny v. Aventis, Inc., 855 F.3d 1091, 1110 (10th Cir. 2017). When the information sought is within the exclusive control of the movant, that factor weighs heavily in favor of relief. See Price ex rel. Price v. Western Res., Inc., 232 F.3d 779, 783 (10th Cir. 2000). An assertion of qualified immunity will heighten the Rule 56(d) burden because officials have “a right, not merely to avoid standing trial, but also to avoid the burdens of such pretrial matters as discovery.” Medina v. Cram, 252 F.3d 1124, 1127 (10th Cir. 2001) (quotations omitted). But “limited discovery may sometimes be necessary before the district court can resolve a motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity.” Crawford-El v. Britton, 523 U.S. 574, 593 n.14 (1998).

         The Court stayed discovery in this case pending the disposition of Defendants' dispositive motions asserting qualified immunity. (Doc. 45.) Consequently, Plaintiff has not had any opportunity to obtain discovery from Defendants. Plaintiff asserts that discovery is necessary to test the veracity of statements relied on by Defendants to argue that the refusal of B.P.'s transfer was not a violation of equal protection.

         The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits any state from “deny[ing] to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1. “[I]t embodies a general rule that States must treat like cases alike but may treat unlike cases accordingly.” Teigen v. Renfrow, 511 F.3d 1072, 1083 (10th Cir. 2007) (quoting Vacco v. Quill, 521 U.S. 793, 799 (1997)). Plaintiff brings her claim under a class-of-one theory, alleging that by denying B.P. the ability to transfer to AHS without first waiving her legal claims, while allowing B.P.'s ...

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