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City of Berkeley v. Ferguson-Florissant School District

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

November 4, 2019

THE CITY OF BERKELEY, MISSOURI, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
FERGUSON-FLORISSANT SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          RONNIE L. WHITE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants Ferguson-Florissant School District (“District”), Robert Chabot, Scott Ebert, Leslie Hogshead, and Jessica Ponder's (collectively “Defendants”) Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Verified Complaint and Application for Temporary Restraining Order, Preliminary Injunction, and Permanent Injunction Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) (ECF No. 10). The motion is fully briefed and ready for disposition. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants Defendants' motion to dismiss.

         I. Background

         Ferguson-Florissant is a school district located in north St. Louis County, Missouri. (Pl.'s First Am. Compl. ¶ 11, ECF No. 24) The District includes all or part of eleven municipalities, including the City of Berkeley, and is governed by a seven member school board. (Id.) The District's School Board[1] (“Board”) approved a reorganization of the District which resulted in the closing of schools, the reorganization of schools, and the transfer of students to other schools. (Id. at ¶ 3) For instance, the District formerly had three full service high schools, McCluer, McCluer North, and McCluer South-Berkeley. (Id. at ¶ 3 n. 2) The District reorganized McCluer South-Berkeley into a STEAM high school, causing the students at the Berkeley school to transfer to either McCluer or McCluer North. (Id. at ¶¶ 3 n. 2, 27) The plan also closed a grade school and a middle school in Berkeley. (Id. at ¶ 32)

         On February 1, 2019, Plaintiffs filed a Verified Complaint and Application for Temporary Restraining Order, Preliminary Injunction, and Permanent Injunction. (ECF No. 1) Plaintiffs filed an identical First Amended Complaint on April 15, 2019 with the names of the minor children replaced with initials. (ECF No. 24) Plaintiffs are the City of Berkeley, minor students who attended Berkeley schools, and their relatives as next friends. (Id. at ¶¶ 5-10) Plaintiffs contend that the school closings and reorganization will cause irreparable harm to the City of Berkeley, as the actions disproportionately affect the Berkeley citizens and the young people who attend Berkeley neighborhood schools. (Id. at ¶¶ 4, 22) Plaintiffs assert the District's decision will destabilize the Berkeley community, decrease the city's population, cause real estate developers to build elsewhere, lower property values, and cause hardships on parents and students. (Id. at ¶¶ 16, 22-23, 25, 32)

         Plaintiffs bring claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of their right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment by implementing a reorganization that closes neighborhood schools. (Id. at ¶ 30) They also claim the reorganization violates Section Two of the Missouri Constitution because the action violates Plaintiffs' natural rights to equality under the law. (Id. at ¶ 31) Plaintiffs assert Defendants affirmatively created or increased the risk that Plaintiffs would be exposed to disparate treatment and be adversely affected by the reorganization. (Id. at ¶ 40) Further, they allege Defendants knew or should have known their acts or omissions would specifically harm the Plaintiffs. (Id. at ¶ 41) Plaintiffs seek injunctive relief preventing the District from implementing the reorganization plan and enjoining the relocation of students to different schools. They also seek attorney's fees and costs. On March 26, 2019, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (ECF No. 10)

         II. Legal Standard

         A complaint must be dismissed under Federal Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted if the complaint fails to plead “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level . . . .” Id. at 555. Courts must liberally construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and accept the factual allegations as true. See Schaaf v. Residential Funding Corp., 517 F.3d 544, 549 (8th Cir. 2008) (stating that in a motion to dismiss, courts accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint); Eckert v. Titan Tire Corp., 514 F.3d 801, 806 (8th Cir. 2008) (explaining that courts should liberally construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff).

         However, “[w]here the allegations show on the face of the complaint there is some insuperable bar to relief, dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) is appropriate.” Benton v. Merrill Lynch & Co., 524 F.3d 866, 870 (8th Cir. 2008) (citation omitted). Courts “are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). When considering a motion to dismiss, a court can “begin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Id. at 679. Legal conclusions must be supported by factual allegations to survive a motion to dismiss. Id.

         III. Discussion

         In their motion to dismiss, Defendants argue the Court should dismiss Plaintiffs' complaint because it fails to state a valid claim under § 1983. Specifically, Defendants contend the City of Berkeley cannot bring a claim under § 1983 for an alleged violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the decision of the Board to reorganize the schools passes the rational basis test. In response, Plaintiffs assert the City of Berkeley can advance constitutional claims, and the District's actions flunk the rational basis test. Further, Plaintiffs claim racial discrimination by the Defendants, to which strict scrutiny applies. The Court finds dismissal of Plaintiffs' complaint is warranted.

         A. § 1983 claim by the City of Berkeley

         Defendants argue Plaintiff City of Berkeley cannot maintain a constitutional claim under § 1983 because it has no rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. “To state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege (1) the defendant acted under the color of state law and (2) the defendant's alleged conduct deprived the plaintiff of a federally-protected right.” Schmidt v. City of Bella Villa, 557 F.3d 564, 571 (8th Cir. 2009). Plaintiff's Fourteenth Amendment claim appears to be one for violation of equal protection under the law. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees that “[n]o State shall ... deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

         However, several federal courts have held a municipality may not challenge acts of the state under the Fourteenth Amendment regardless of whether the defendant is the state itself or one of the state's political subdivisions. Vill. of Arlington Heights v. Reg'l Transp. Auth., 653 F.2d 1149, 1153 (7th Cir. 1981); see also Hous. Auth. of Kaw Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma v. City of Ponca City, 952 F.2d 1183, 1190 (10th Cir. 1991) (“We thus conclude that a political subdivision of a state may not challenge the validity of an act by a fellow political subdivision under the Fourteenth Amendment unless such an action is expressly authorized by the creating state.”); S. Macomb Disposal Auth. v. Washington Twp.,790 F.2d 500, 505 (6th Cir. 1986) (“[A] political subdivision of a state cannot challenge the constitutionality of another political subdivision's ordinance on due process and equal protection grounds.”); Delta Special Sch. Dist. No. 5 v. State Bd. of Educ. for State of Ark.,745 F.2d 532, 533 (8th Cir. 1984) (“A political subdivision of a state cannot invoke the protection of the fourteenth amendment against the state.”); Bd. of Water Works Trustees of City of Des Moines, Iowa v. Sac Cty. Bd. of ...


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