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Goodwin v. Lee Public Schools

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Berkshire

August 23, 2016

LEE PUBLIC SCHOOLS & others. [1]

          Heard: March 10, 2016.

         Civil action commenced in the Superior Court Department on December 30, 2014.

         A motion to dismiss was heard by C. Jeffrey Kinder, J., and a motion for reconsideration was considered by him.

         The Supreme Judicial Court granted an application for direct appellate review.

          Joseph N. Schneiderman for the plaintiff.

          David S. Monastersky for the defendants.

          Sky Kochenour & Jenny Chou, for Center for Law and Education & another, amici curiae, submitted a brief.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Spina, Cordy, Botsford, Duffly, Lenk, & Hines, JJ. [2]

          DUFFLY, J.

         The plaintiff, Katelynn Goodwin, was a high school student at the Lee Middle and High School in the town of Lee (town) when she was suspended from school for conduct that purportedly took place not on school grounds, pursuant to a school policy, based on G. L. c. 71, § 37H1/2 (§ 37H1/2), which provided that students who had been charged with felonies would be suspended. The principal ordered the suspension in the mistaken belief that the plaintiff had been charged with a felony, stealing, or being involved in the theft of, a firearm. Ultimately, the suspension lasted for the entire final semester of what would have been the plaintiff's senior year, and she was unable to graduate with her class, but eventually obtained her high school diploma. She thereafter commenced this action in the Superior Court against the Lee public schools, the superintendent of the Lee schools, and the town.

         The question confronting the court is whether the judge erred in allowing the defendants' motion to dismiss based on the failure to exhaust the administrative remedies available under § 37H1/2. We conclude that, because the tort recovery a student may seek under G. L. c. 76, § 16, provides a separate and distinct remedy from that available under § 37H1/2, a statute that establishes an expedited process by which a student may seek readmission to school, the plaintiff was not obligated to exhaust the statute's administrative remedies before pursuing a tort claim under G. L. c. 76, § 16.


         The plaintiff was in her senior year of high school when the principal of the Lee Middle and High School temporarily suspended her on December 20, 2011. The suspension, which was to last through January 9, 2012, was based on a school policy concerning students who had been charged with a felony. The policy, apparently derived from the school's reading of § 37H1/2 (1), [3] was included in the student handbook. In a letter sent to the plaintiff's mother on the day of the suspension, the principal explained that her decision to suspend the plaintiff was based on "charges brought against her by the Lee [p]olice, including an alleged connection to weapons[] theft [a felony]." In fact, no charges had been filed. In April, 2012, more than three months after imposition of the suspension, a complaint issued from the Berkshire County Division of the Juvenile Court Department charging the plaintiff with receipt of stolen property under $250, a misdemeanor to which § 37H1/2 (1) does not apply. The plaintiff was never charged with a felony.

         On December 21, 2011, the day after the plaintiff had been suspended, the plaintiff's mother telephoned the superintendent and asked him to lift the plaintiff's suspension, advising him that no criminal charges had issued against her daughter. That same day, the superintendent sent a letter to the plaintiff's mother stating that "we are keeping [the plaintiff] out of school until the legal matter is clarified." The superintendent acknowledged in his letter that the plaintiff had "perhaps not been charged yet."

         On January 6, 2012, the principal wrote a second letter to the plaintiff's mother, stating that the plaintiff would be suspended from school, beginning on January 10, 2012, assertedly pursuant to the provisions of § 37H1/2, "for the duration of all criminal proceedings as a result of the issuance of criminal complaints by the Lee Police against [her]." Under § 37H1/2 (1), a student may be suspended from school "[u]pon the issuance of a criminal complaint charging a student with a felony ... if [the] principal or headmaster determines that the student's continued presence in school would have a substantial detrimental effect on the general welfare of the school." The principal's letter also stated that the plaintiff had the right to appeal from her suspension to the superintendent within five days of the effective date of the suspension. The plaintiff concedes that she did not formally appeal to the superintendent (in writing) from her suspension.[4]The plaintiff subsequently acquired legal counsel and, on April 26, 2012, sent a letter to the superintendent seeking to have her suspension lifted. A meeting was held on the plaintiff's request on May 2, 2012, and the suspension was lifted, based on the determination that the plaintiff could return to classes because she was "not currently charged with a felony, " but that she would not be allowed to attend the graduation ceremony with her classmates. After learning that she would not be able to attend graduation, the plaintiff decided that she did not want to return to classes at the school. A written agreement apparently was reached concerning how she would be able to complete the missed credits and obtain her diploma. The agreement provided, among other things, that the plaintiff would receive tutoring at the town library, two hours per day, through the end of the school year on June 15, 2012. The plaintiff then took classes through an online program provided by the school, and ultimately graduated from high school in the summer of 2013; she rejected the school's offer of holding a graduation ceremony conducted for her alone.

         In December, 2014, the plaintiff commenced this action in the Superior Court. The plaintiff's complaint asserted that her suspension was unlawful under § 37H1/2, because she had not been charged with a felony, and sought compensation "for the grief and stigmatization caused to the Plaintiff for not being permitted to participate in her last year of school on school grounds and in the rite of passage that is graduation." The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, arguing that the plaintiff had not exhausted administrative remedies under § 37H1/2, and had not sought certiorari review under G. L. c. 249, § 4. In her opposition to the defendants' motion, the plaintiff asserted that she was also entitled to damages under G. L. c. 76, § 16, based on the same facts. At a hearing on the motion to dismiss, the judge heard arguments concerning both claims.

         The plaintiff argued, and the defendants did not dispute, that the plaintiff's approximately five-month suspension from school was unlawful. The judge allowed the defendants' motion to dismiss, however, on the ground that the plaintiff failed to exhaust her administrative remedies under § 37H1/2 before filing her complaint. The judge's decision did not expressly address the plaintiff's argument that she could pursue damages under G. L. c. 76, § 16. The plaintiff thereafter filed a motion for reconsideration, in which she argued that the exhaustion requirements under § 37H1/2 did not apply to her, and that she had a separate and distinct right ...

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