Dismissal of Cheerleader’s Complaint Against a Texas High School Becomes a Reminder Not to Jump to Constitutional Conclusions

Mar 10, 2023

By Gina McKlveen

Not all constitutional claims rise to the level necessary to survive a motion to dismiss. Recently, a federal district judge for the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, dismissed a plaintiff’s amended complaint after finding that both the alleged due process and Title IX claims were conclusory and failed to establish a violation of any constitutional rights.

After showing up late to a cheerleading practice at Northside Independent School District (“NISD”), as a punishment for her tardiness, Chloe Murphy (“Murphy”) was forced by NISD’s cheerleading coach, Sarita Shanley (“Shanley”) to complete 150 frog jump exercises in temperatures upwards of 95 degrees Fahrenheit without providing her with any water. Murphy claims that during the frog jump exercises, she became noticeably ill, began to lose feeling in her legs, and eventually vomited at the end of practice. She accuses Shanley and her cheering coaches of lacking concern for her health and safety, indicating that while she was apparently becoming sick the coaches repeatedly yelled at her and failed to contact a trainer or nurse for help. After practice, Murphy’s parents drove her to an urgent care which immediately admitted her to a hospital, where she remained for six days and was diagnosed with severe dehydration, damaged muscles in her legs, kidney damage, as well as an autoimmune disorder known as Rhabdomyolysis.

Murphy’s parents filed the original complaint against NISD alleging violations of Murphy’s constitutional rights to due process and equal protection pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“Section 1983”) and a claim for relief under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (“Title IX”) on their daughter’s behalf because at the time she was still a minor. However, following several motions to dismiss, responses, and an amended complaint, Murphy had reached the age of majority and her parents were removed from the case so that she would be the only named plaintiff. Murphy’s argument to support her Section 1983 claims were that NISD’s School Board was negligent in hiring, training, and supervising Shanley. As for her Title IX claims, Murphy argued that NISD’s School Board did not provide an equivalent level of funding to female student athletes as it did to male student athletes. The judge addressed all of Murphy’s claims in a decision handed down last month. But after reviewing NISD’s motion to dismiss in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, in this case Murphy, the judge still found grounds to dismiss Murphy’s claims.

The Section 1983 Claim

Section 1983 prohibits “persons” from denying another of their “rights, privileges, and immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” Prior precedent has previously established that municipalities and local governmental entities are considered “persons” liable under Section 1983. However, as the judge here pointed out, an independent school district like NISD may be liable only for acts that it is actually responsible for, which is called municipality liability.  A 2015 United States Fifth Circuit Court case, Fennell v. Marion Indep. Sch. Dist., established three elements necessary to prove municipal liability under Section 1983: (1) an official policy or custom; (2) a policymaker who can be charged with actual or constructive knowledge of the policy; and (3) a violation of constitutional rights whose “moving force” is the policy or custom. If the plaintiff cannot prove the following, then an alternative, according to United States Supreme Court precedent in City of Canton v. Harris, is to show that the plaintiff was injured as a result of the defendant’s “deliberative indifference” to the plaintiff’s constitutional rights.

The judge in Murphy’s case concluded that she was unable to satisfy either the three-prong test or the “deliberative indifference” standard because she showed no evidence that there was an official policy that was the moving force behind her injuries and her factual allegations to prove “deliberative indifference” were conclusory at best. Moreover, Murphy’s equal protection clause claim under Section 1983 had to prove that she “received treatment different from that received by similarly situated individuals and that the unequal treatment stemmed from a discriminatory intent,” but once again the judge found that Murphy’s complaint lacked allegations to prove such a claim.

Based on these determinations, the judge dismissed Murphy’s Section 1983 claim.

The Title IX Claim

For a plaintiff seeking damages pursuant to a Title IX claim, the United States Supreme Court in Franklin v. Gwinnett County Pub. Schs., determined that there must be intentional discrimination. Under Texas case law precedent there are two types of Title IX claims: (1) seeking to hold an institution liable for teacher-on-student or student-on-student sexual harassment and (2) challenging an institution’s official policy of intentional discrimination on the basis of sex. Murphy’s Title IX claim against NISD falls in the second category, meaning she is required to prove NISD “intentionally” discriminated against female student athletes based on their sex.

Once again, the judge here determined that Murphy’s claims were conclusory, stating that she “alleges in conclusory terms that NISD’s policies and practices constitute disparate treatment of female athletes, [she] fails to allege any facts to show that NISD’s actions in this case were in any way carried out because of [her] gender.” More to the point, the judge found that Murphy also failed to allege that NISD’s acts or omission were intentional since she could not prove that frog jumps were against the school’s policy or that an official of the school had actual notice of Shanley’s use of frog jumps. Finally, Murphy offered no evidence to show that NISD failed to protect her because of her sex or that the similarly situated male student athletes were treated any differently.

Therefore, as with her Section 1983 claim, Murphy’s Title IX claim was also dismissed.

In conclusion, no matter how many jumps Murphy did, this judge made one thing clear: plaintiff’s claims cannot jump to conclusions. Nevertheless, the judge did grant Murphy’s motion to amend her complaint and to state claims upon which relief can be granted, which she now has until the 15th of this March to submit, otherwise her case could be dismissed altogether.

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