Discrimination Claim Brought Against School District by International Swimmer Fails

Apr 5, 2024

A federal judge from the Central District Court of California has dismissed the complaint of an international high school athlete, who claimed that he was discriminated against based on race, gender, national origin, religion, and/or ethnic background when he was not permitted to participate in an independent study program nor the high school swim team.

The plaintiff, B.K., is of “Turkish-Islamic background and heritage.” He holds dual Turkish and American citizenship, and his religion is Islam.

Among the defendants was the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, as well as several individual defendants.

B.K. applied with the District for Independent Study P.E. (ISPE), but was denied. He alleged that two swimmers were approved for ISPE the year he applied. He also alleged that his sister, who “does cross country running is offered ISPE.”

Aydin, who serves as B.K.’s guardian ad litem in this suit, was allegedly told by Santa Monica High School Athletic Director Coleen Davenport, also a named defendant in this suit, that ISPE is not meant for all sports. He also alleged that the swim coach at the high school suggested that the plaintiff continue to swim with his club team and to study in a nearby classroom while the school team practiced.

Allegedly, Aydin reached out to board members of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School Board, several of whom are now named defendants in this lawsuit. He claimed that only two board members ever responded to his emails and that they took no action in response.

After the plaintiff’s ISPE application was denied, Aydin appealed on behalf of B.K. to Santa Monica High’s Principal. The principal wrote that the denial was based on B.K.’s swim performance. The principal acknowledged B.K.’s performance was high ranking among other boys his age, but allegedly stated that the plaintiff was not outperforming CIF standards. Finally, the principal stated that ISPE had not been offered to any student for a sport that is offered by the school unless there were individual academic conflicts with the student’s schedule. The plaintiff alleged that the bar for swimming athletes is arbitrarily high and that his swimming achievements are in line with his age and more than sufficiently advanced to qualify for ISPE.

Late last summer, the defendants moved to dismiss the lawsuit.

Upon review, the court first considered the plaintiff’s equal protection claim.

On this point, the court wrote that it is concerned “with the continued lack of clarity as to the theory Plaintiff seeks to advance for his equal protection claim.” The court continued, “Plaintiff has not alleged sufficient facts to make clear whether the equal protection claim he attempts to assert is based on his membership in a class of competitive swimmers that was treated differently by the regulations regarding ISPE put in place by the Board or is based on his status as a class of one who was treated differently than other similarly situated swimmers. However, under either theory, Plaintiff’s claims would be subject to rational basis review because, as explored below, Plaintiff has not adequately alleged that any discrimination was based on his race, ethnicity, religion, or gender. Therefore, the only remaining alleged classification in the complaint is that of membership in a class of ‘competitive swimmers.’ This is not a protected class, and any discrimination against such a group is subject to rational basis review. See Romer, 517 U.S. at 631. To the extent Plaintiff argues that strict scrutiny should apply because he was denied a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution, such an argument fails because the right to education is not such a right. See San Antonio Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 37, 93 S. Ct. 1278, 36 L. Ed. 2d 16 (1973) (‘We have carefully considered each of the arguments supportive of the District Courts finding that education is a fundamental right or liberty and have found those arguments unpersuasive.’).

“Furthermore, no matter the level of scrutiny applied to Plaintiff’s claims under the equal protection clause, Plaintiff has not sufficiently alleged that he was treated differently by Defendants than other similarly situated individuals. He has not alleged comparators other than in general terms. For instance, while he alleges that two swimmers were granted ISPE, he has not alleged any facts to show that these other swimmers were each similarly situated to Plaintiff, such as facts demonstrating that each was similarly competitive to Plaintiff or that they each similarly lacked academic conflicts with participation on the school swim team. Without sufficient factual allegations demonstrating he was similarly situated to any comparators, Plaintiff’s equal protection claim cannot survive.”

Next, the court turned to the plaintiff’s procedural due process claim.

In such instances, a plaintiff bringing a procedural due process claim must allege “(1) a deprivation of a constitutionally protected liberty or property interest, and (2) a denial of adequate procedural protections.  Brewster v. Bd. of Educ. Of Lynwood Unified Sch. Dist., 149 F.3d 971, 982 (9th Cir. 1998). When examining the first prong of the due process inquiry, courts look to state law to determine what constitutes a ‘property’ interest. See Bd. of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 577, 92 S. Ct. 2701, 33 L. Ed. 2d 548 (1972). Furthermore, where state law has created a student’s entitlement to a public education, that entitlement constitutes a constitutionally protected property interest. See Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565, 573-74, 95 S. Ct. 729, 42 L. Ed. 2d 725 (1975).

“Here, California provides a right to free public education and requires children between the ages of six and eighteen, absent some exceptions, to attend full-time education. See Cal. Educ. Code § 48200. Therefore, under Goss, Plaintiff has a constitutional property interest in his access to public education. See Goss, 419 U.S. at 573-74. However, Plaintiff has not pointed the Court to any caselaw finding such a right extends to physical education and, beyond that, to the option of independent study physical education. Instead, cases discussing the denial of a constitutional right to education are largely based on situations where students were expelled or suspended, without process. See, e.g., Goss, 419 U.S. at 577-84 (involving a due process challenge to a suspension of ten days or fewer); Wynar v. Douglas Cty. Sch. Dist., 728 F.3d 1062, 1072-74 (9th Cir. 2013) (involving due process challenge to suspension and subsequent expulsion). Therefore, Plaintiff has not sufficiently alleged that any property interest in a right to education was denied and, thus, has failed to state a claim for denial of procedural due process.”

Turning to the plaintiff’s Title VI claim, the court was similarly unconvinced.

“Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on ‘race, color, and national origin’ in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance,” wrote the court, citing 42 U.S.C. § 2000d. “To state a claim under the statute, a plaintiff must allege that (1) the defendant has discriminated against him based on his race or nationality and (2) that the defendant is an entity receiving federal financial assistance. Davison ex rel. Sims v. Santa Barbara High School Dist., 48 F. Supp. 2d 1225, 1229 (C.D. Cal. 1998). A plaintiff must further allege that the discrimination was intentional. Schmitt v. Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of Washington, 965 F.3d 945, 953-54 (9th Cir. 2020) (citing Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275, 279-80, 121 S. Ct. 1511, 149 L. Ed. 2d 517 (2001)). To show intentional discrimination, a plaintiff ‘must show that actions of the defendants had a discriminatory impact, and that defendants acted with an intent or purpose to discriminate based upon plaintiffs’ membership in a protected class.’ The Comm. Concerning Cmty. Improvement v. City of Modesto, 583 F.3d 690, 702-03 (9th Cir. 2009). Dismissal of a Title VI claim is appropriate where a plaintiff fails to allege any evidence to indicate racial other type of prohibited bias motivated a defendant’s action. See Joseph v. Boise State Univ., 998 F. Supp. 2d 928, 944 (D. Idaho 2014), aff’d, 667 F. App’x 241 (9th Cir. 2016). To survive a motion to dismiss, the allegations of discriminatory motivation must be ‘plausible, not merely possible.’ Moss v. U.S. Secret Service, 572 F.3d 962, 970 (9th Cir. 2009).

“Here, Plaintiff’s FAC alleges that Plaintiff is Turkish and Muslim, and in conclusory fashion, alleges that Plaintiff believes he was denied ISPE because of his race and religion. However, Plaintiff also alleges that his sister was granted ISPE. Assuming Plaintiff and his sister are of the same race, nationality, and/or religion, Plaintiff’s allegation contradicts any plausibility of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, or religion. Furthermore, the Complaint contains no factual allegations to support the claim of discrimination. For instance, Plaintiff does not allege that the swimmers he claims were granted ISPE were of a different race or religion. See e.g., King v. Bd. Of Trustees of California State Univ., No. C 14-5020 LB, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43897, 2015 WL 1519268, at *3 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 2, 2015) (Plaintiff’s statement that he ‘identifies as Negro or African American and believes the impact was discriminatory along the line of race, color, or national origin’ . . . is conclusory and insufficient to meet the Iqbal-Twombly standard” for purposes of stating a Title VI claim). Therefore, Plaintiff has failed to state a claim for discrimination under Title VI.”

B.K., a minor, by and through his guardian ad litem, and parent, AYDIN KOCATASKIN, Plaintiff, v. SANTA MONICA-MALIBU UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT; C.D. Cal.; Case No. 2:23-cv-05032-SPG-MAA; 12/7/23

Articles in Current Issue