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G.S. v. Rose Tree Media School District

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 21, 2019

G.S., by and through his parents, F.S and J.S, Plaintiff,


          EDUARDO C. ROBRENO, J.


         Plaintiff in this case, G.S., is a 17-year-old high school student who was expelled from Penncrest High School in Media, Pennsylvania. ECF No. 8. On Sunday, April 1, 2018, G.S. posted lyrics from the song “Snap” by the band Spite to his Snapchat account. Id. ¶ 38. Defendants aver that G.S.'s post stated:

Everyone, I despise everyone!
Fuck you, eat shit, blackout, the world is a
All of you, I will fucking kill off all of you!
This is me, this is my, snap!

ECF No. 13-1 at 3 (emphasis added) (erroneously omitting the word “off”); ECF No. 6-2 (purportedly an image of the Snapchat post); see also ECF No. 8 ¶ 40.

         According to G.S., one or more of his 65 Snapchat followers reposted his Snapchat post to other social media platforms, including Instagram and Facebook. ECF No. 8 ¶ 41. Then another person reposted the text again but added the words “”penncreststudents, ” transforming the post into a “direct threat.” Id. ¶ 19. This “doctored post” then made the rounds on social media platforms. Id. ¶ 42.

         The same day, Pennsylvania State Police interviewed G.S. and his family. Id. ¶ 43. G.S. was taken into custody. Id. ¶ 44. The School District was told by the police that G.S. was in custody, but the School District did not inform the school community of that fact until after the start of the school day on Monday, April 2, 2018. Id. ¶¶ 44-47.

         G.S. was suspended from school for 10 days and then expelled on August 23, 2018 after expulsion proceedings. Id. ¶¶ 48, 59-60; see also ECF No. 11-1 Ex. 1 (adjudication of the Board of School Directors). G.S. claims that the school had no basis to expel him, rather the school was retaliating against him for his successful assertion of his federal rights under the McKinney-Vento Act in a previous lawsuit. ECF No. 8 ¶ 21. G.S. also claims that the school had previously made and then repeated false accusations that he had made a school shooting threat. Id. ¶¶ 25-28.

         G.S. brought multiple causes of action in his First Amended Complaint. Seven are federal claims brought under federal question jurisdiction, and two are state law claims that are brought under supplemental jurisdiction. G.S. variously alleges Defendants: violated his rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments (Counts I to VI), including punishing him despite his making protected speech, and enforcing facially and as-applied overbroad and vague content restrictions; retaliated against him for his previous successful assertion of his civil rights under the McKinney-Vento Act (Count VII); deprived him of due process under Pennsylvania law during the suspension and expulsion proceedings (Count VIII); and defamed him on several occasions, beginning in 2015 (Count IX). Defendants filed an Answer, and then moved for Judgment on the Pleadings on just the state law claims, Counts VIII and IX. ECF Nos. 11, 13. Defendants' briefing included a near half-alphabet of arguments, from A to K, in support of dismissing or limiting the two state law claims. ECF No. 13-1 at 7-29. G.S. opposed the motion, and Defendants filed a Motion for Leave to File a Reply. ECF Nos. 17, 18.

         Argument “A” raised by Defendants asserted that Count VIII was “a supposed appeal of the School Board's adjudication expelling G.S. as a student.” ECF No. 13-1 at 7-11. Defendants argued that under Pennsylvania law, a student wishing to appeal a school board's expulsion decision must file an action in the appropriate state court of common pleas. Id. at 10 n.3.

         In light of the issues raised in Defendants' Argument “A, ” the Court issued a Rule to Show Cause “as to whether the Court should find that Younger abstention applies to this case.” ECF No. 20 ¶ 1. The parties responded to the Rule to Show Cause, and the issue is ripe for disposition. ECF Nos. 21, 22.

         After careful consideration of the procedural background of this case, Pennsylvania law regarding school hearings and appeals therefrom, and jurisdictional constraints imposed by Supreme Court and Third Circuit precedent, the Court finds that Younger abstention is necessary and the Court cannot proceed to hear any of the federal claims in Counts I to VII or the state law claim in Count VIII. As a result, the entire case must be dismissed because the Court lacks jurisdiction over the remaining defamation claim in Count IX.

         II. LAW

         A. Younger Abstention

         The doctrine of Younger abstention, Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), provides that as a matter of policy a federal court must abstain from deciding matters where the federal court's decision would cause undue interference with pending state proceedings. See Sprint Commc'ns, Inc. v. Jacobs, 571 U.S. 69, 72-73 (2013); New Orleans Pub. Serv., Inc. v. Council of City of New Orleans, 491 U.S. 350, 359 (1989) (“NOPSI”) (“[T]here are some classes of cases in which the withholding of authorized equitable relief because of undue interference with state proceedings is ‘the normal thing to do.'”) (quoting Younger, 401 U.S. at 45); Lazaridis v. Wehmer, 591 F.3d 666, 670 (3d Cir. 2010) (“In certain circumstances, district courts must abstain from exercising jurisdiction over a particular claim where resolution of that claim in federal court would offend principles of comity by interfering with an ongoing state proceeding.”).

         Younger abstention is founded on “the principles of equity, comity, and federalism that must restrain a federal court when asked to enjoin a state court proceeding.” Mitchum v. Foster, 407 U.S. 225, 243 (1972). Comity is the “proper respect for state functions, ” and recognizes “the fact that the entire country is made up of a Union of separate state governments, and a continuance of the belief that the National Government will fare best if the States and their institutions are left free to perform their separate functions in their separate ways.” Younger, 401 U.S. at 44. Comity reflects a proper “sensitivity to the legitimate interests of both State and National Governments, and in which the National Government, anxious though it may be to vindicate and protect federal rights and federal interests, always endeavors to do so in ways that will not unduly interfere with the legitimate activities of the States.” Id.

         The doctrine of Younger abstention originally concerned only “parallel, pending state criminal proceeding.” Sprint, 571 U.S. at 72. The Supreme Court has extended the doctrine to cover “particular state civil proceedings that are akin to criminal prosecutions or that implicate a State's interest in enforcing the orders and judgments of its courts.” Id. at 72-73 (citations omitted).

         The Supreme Court recently revisited the application of the doctrine in Sprint. Sprint teaches that the scope of Younger is not so broad that a federal court should routinely abstain merely because there are pending state court proceedings. Id. at 73. Rather, the circumstances that fit within the Younger doctrine are “exceptional” and are limited in scope to “state criminal prosecutions, civil enforcement proceedings, and civil proceedings involving certain orders that are uniquely in furtherance of the state courts' ability to perform their judicial functions.” Id. at 73, 78 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting NOPSI, 491 U.S. at 368). Indeed, a federal court having jurisdiction over a case has a “virtually unflagging” “‘obligation' to hear and decide [that] case.” Id. at 77 (quoting Colo. River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 817 (1976)).

         The types of civil enforcement proceedings to which Younger might apply are those that are “akin to a criminal prosecution in important respects.” See Id. at 79 (quotation marks omitted) (quoting Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd.,420 U.S. 592, 604 (1975)). As the Supreme Court explained, “[s]uch enforcement actions are characteristically initiated to sanction the federal plaintiff, i.e., the party challenging the state action, for some wrongful act.” Id. In these types of cases, “a state actor is routinely a party to the state proceeding and often initiates the action” in its sovereign capacity. Id. Furthermore, “[i]nvestigations are commonly involved, often culminating in the filing of a formal complaint or charges.” Id. at 79-80. A court should “also consider whether the State ...

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