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Stokey v. North Canton City School District

United States District Court, N.D. Ohio, Eastern Division

May 4, 2018





         This case is before the undersigned for a report and recommendation on Plaintiff Michael Stokey's (“Plaintiff” or “Stokey”) motion for temporary restraining order (“TRO Motion”) filed on May 2, 2018. (Doc. 3). Defendants filed a response to Plaintiff's TRO Motion on May 3, 2018 (Doc. 10).

         For the reasons set forth herein, the undersigned recommends that the Court GRANT in part and DENY in part Plaintiff's TRO Motion. Specifically, the undersigned recommends that the Court GRANT the TRO Motion insofar as it seeks reinstatement of Plaintiff Stokey's son to the North Canton City School District's pole vault program. The undersigned recommends that the Court DENY the TRO Motion to the extent Stokey seeks to require Defendants to allow his son to participate in pole vault meets without complying with the directives and decisions of his coach, including directives with regard to practices. While Stokey has demonstrated a strong likelihood of success on the merits of his First Amendment retaliation claim and there is irreparable harm sufficient to warrant the award of injunctive relief, school officials, including coaches, have discretion to make and enforce decisions with respect to the administration of athletic programs.

         I. Background

         The TRO Motion seeks to enjoin the North Canton City School District (“the District”) from excluding Stokey's son, a high school student, from the pole vaulting athletic program at Hoover High School, including a twilight meet to be held on May 4, 2018, and several other meets to be held before the end of the current season. Stokey alleges that the District excluded his son from the pole vaulting program in retaliation for Stokey's exercise of his First Amendment rights. Doc. 1, Doc. 3. The pole vault program is part of Hoover High School's track and field team; Stokey's son currently participates in other track and field events. Doc. 1-2, p. 2, Doc. 10, p. 2

         II. Law & Analysis

         A. Temporary Restraining Orders

         When considering a TRO pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 65, courts must determine whether a plaintiff has met his burden in establishing the following four factors: 1) whether the moving party has a strong likelihood of success on the merits; 2) whether the moving party will suffer irreparable harm unless injunctive relief is granted; 3) whether the requested relief will cause substantial harm to third parties; and 4) whether injunctive relief is in the public interest (“TRO factors”). Northeast Ohio Coalition for Homeless and Service Employees Intern. Union v. Blackwell, 467 F.3d 999, 1009 (6th Cir. 2006); Jones v. Caruso, 569 F.3d 258, 265 (6th Cir. 2009). “These factors are not prerequisites but, are factors that are to be balanced against each other.” Overstreet v. Lexington-Fayette Urban County Gov't, 305 F.3d 566, 573 (6th Cir. 2002). “A preliminary injunction is an extraordinary remedy which should be granted only if the movant carries his or her burden of proving that the circumstances clearly demand it.” Id. (citing Leary v. Daeschner, 228 F.3d 729, 739 (6th Cir. 2000).

         B. Application of TRO Factors

         1. Likelihood of Success on the Merits

         In order to succeed on a First Amendment Retaliation claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate three elements. Jenkins v. Rock Hill Local School Dist., 513 F.3d 580, 585-586 (6th Cir. 2008). A plaintiff must show that “(1) the plaintiff was engaged in a constitutionally protected activity; (2) the defendant's adverse action caused the plaintiff to suffer an injury that would likely chill a person of ordinary firmness from continuing to engage in that activity; (3) and the adverse action was motivated at least in part as a response to the exercise of the plaintiff's constitutional rights.” Id.

         From April 5, 2018, through April 19, 2018, Stokey communicated to school officials regarding his concerns about safety issues related to pole vaulters being directed by their coach to jump in the rain during practices. Docs. 1-1 through Doc. 1-5. After some initial communications, Stokey was directed by a member of the school board to follow the “chain of command” by communicating first with the coach and then, in order, with the athletic director, the high school principal, the superintendent and, finally, with the board if the matter was not resolved. Doc. 1-3, p. 2. Stokey followed the board member's direction. After following the chain of command without success, he spoke with the board on April 18, 2018, and presented a proposed policy to address the concerns he raised. Docs. 1-1 through 1-5. The board considered but rejected Stokey's proposal. On April 19, 2018, Superintendent Jeff Wendorf emailed Stokey a letter in which he stated:

After many written correspondences and face-to-face meetings, you have been very clear on the points you have made, including your continued concern regarding North Canton City School District's pole vault program and your lack of confidence and trust in our pole vault and track coaches. We have thoroughly investigated your allegation and find them to be unsubstantiated. We trust and support our coaches' judgment regarding practices and safety ...

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