Court Sides with School on Athlete’s Constitutional Law Claim

Dec 19, 2008

A federal judge from the Northern District of Iowa has granted a school district’s motion for summary judgment in case where a student athlete claimed that the district violated his Constitutional rights when it, among other things, suspended him from the athletic activities for alcohol-related violations.
In so ruling, the court found that there was “no constitutional or statutory violation,” and it was unwilling “to second-guess the punishment imposed.”
Plaintiff Kyle Chyma was a 17-year-old student entering his senior year at South Tama County High School when he was arrested and charged with operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated on August 6, 2005.
“Following Chyma’s arrest, his mother contacted Mike Stein, an assistant football coach at South Tama High School,” wrote the court. “Julie Chyma asked Stein to ‘come with us’ to discuss the matter with Ernie Tomlinson, the athletic director. At the meeting Chyma, his mother, and Tomlinson all signed a ‘behavioral contract,’ requiring Chyma to perform 15 hours of community service, forfeit his participation in one football game, and obtain a substance abuse evaluation. 5
A little over two months later, Chyma was caught trying to bring a container with alcohol onto a team bus headed for a football game. On the bus were football team members, coaches, and cheerleaders. “Chyma admits that he knew there was alcohol in the container and knew ‘that involvement with alcohol on school grounds could subject him to discipline, such as being suspended from school,’” wrote the court.
On the following Monday, October 31, 2005, Chyma was called to the office and questioned about the incident.
Chyma claims that his parents were called to the office that day and Steve Burr, the high school principal, joined in the discussion. According to Chyma, he was suspended immediately and not allowed to go to the afternoon classes.
The court noted that the affidavits support Defendants’ contention that Chyma was “given an opportunity to present his version of the events.”
“It is undisputed,” wrote the court, “that Chyma was suspended for ten school days.” In addition, he was required to attend the alternative high school for “at least one term.” Furthermore, “Chyma was not permitted to participate in wrestling practice from November 14, 2005 through December 13, 2005, and was prohibited from participating in any wrestling meets until January 6, 2006.”
One of Chyma’s complaints is that on the Monday following the bus incident, he was approached by his wrestling coach, who “’didn’t have very nice words to say.’ Chyma concedes, however, that he does not know how the wrestling coach learned that he had attempted to bring alcohol onto a team bus.”
Chyma ultimately filed a Petition for Damages in the Iowa District Court for Tama County. It consisted of two counts: Count I, entitled “Violation of Constitutional and Statutory Rights Under Color of Law,” alleges that his suspension and transfer to the alternative school violated his right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment, and that the suspension and transfer by Burr or Molachek exceeded their authority, citing Iowa Code Section 282.4. Count II of the Petition, entitled “Invasion of Privacy,” alleges that Tomlinson and “the School Board” violated Chyma’s right to privacy “as protected by the First Amendment” and the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
Addressing the plaintiff’s argument that “being suspended and required to attend an alternative school … deprived (him) of his right to procedural due process,” the court noted that such a claim “under Section 1983 requires a two-step analysis: first, the Court must determine whether there exists a liberty or property interest which has been interfered with by the State; and second, the Court examines whether the procedures accompanying that deprivation were constitutionally sufficient. Kentucky Dept. of Corrections v. Thompson, 490 U.S. 454, 460, 109 S. Ct. 1904, 104 L. Ed. 2d 506 (1989). See also Krentz v. Robertson, 228 F.3d 897, 902 (8th Cir. 2000).”
The court concluded that Chyma “had a property interest and a liberty interest which were implicated.”
Turning to the second question, the court sided with the defendants, writing:
“Even viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Chyma, the Court concludes that he received appropriate notice and an informal hearing prior to any disciplinary action. Chyma was given a fair opportunity to state his version of the events. An appeal to the superintendent of schools was unsuccessful. The Court concludes that the constitutional requirement of due process has been met.”
As for the invasion of privacy claim, the court again favored the school district.
“Even if a disclosure of information regarding the bus incident would support a substantive due process claim, Chyma has failed to generate a genuine issue of material fact regarding such a claim,” the court wrote. “Chyma’s ‘violation of privacy’ claim is based on the fact that on the Monday following the bus incident, ‘somehow my science teacher already found out about the charge before I even got suspended from school.’ Chyma’s science teacher, who was also his wrestling coach, approached him on Monday morning and ‘chewed him out.’ In his deposition, however, Chyma acknowledged that he did not know how the wrestling coach learned of the incident. Chyma speculated that the football coach told the athletic director (Tomlinson), who then told the wrestling coach. It is also possible, however, that the wrestling coach learned of the incident from another football player and/or wrestler. Mere speculation or conjecture is not sufficient to avoid the award of summary judgment. Moody v. St. Charles County, 23 F.3d 1410, 1412 (8th Cir. 1994).”
Kyle Chyma v. Tama County School Board, Larry Molachek, Steve Burr, and Ernie Tomlinson; N.D. Iowa; No. C07-0056, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 68446, 9/8/08
Attorneys of record: (for plaintiff) Robert A Wright, Jr, LEAD ATTORNEY, Wright & Wright, Des Moines, IA. (for defendant) Beth E Hansen, Kevin R Rogers, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Swisher & Cohrt, PLC, Waterloo, IA.


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