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Stokey v. North Canton City School District

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

May 15, 2018

MICHAEL STOKEY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
NORTH CANTON SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., DEFENDANTS.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          HON. SARA LIOI, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         By this civil rights action, plaintiff Michael Stokey (“Stokey”) challenges the dismissal of his son, M.S., from the high school pole vaulting team. On May 4, 2018, the magistrate judge issued a report and recommendation (Doc. No. 13 [“R&R”]) recommending that the Court grant in part and deny in part Stokey's motion for a temporary restraining order seeking M.S.'s immediate reinstatement to the pole vaulting team. Defendants, Superintendent Jeffrey Wendorf (“Superintendent Wendorf”) and North Canton City School District (“NCCSD”) (collectively “School District”), filed objections to the R&R (Doc. No. 15 [“Obj.”]), and Stokey filed a response.[1] (Doc. No. 17 [“Res.”]; see Doc. No. 16 [“Res. Exhibits”].) The parties agreed that the matter could be submitted on the briefs without a hearing. For the reasons that follow, the objections to the R&R are sustained and the motion for a temporary restraining order is denied.

         I. Background

         According to the complaint, M.S. is a freshman at Hoover High School and a member of the high school track and field team. (Doc. No. 1 [“Compl.”] ¶ 1.) The head coach of the track team is Nick Stroemple (“Coach Stroemple”). (See Id. ¶ 8; Doc. No. 15-11 (Affidavit of Nick Stroemple [“Stroemple Aff.”]) ¶ 3.) Prior to April 19, 2018, M.S. was also a member of the pole vaulting squad, which is under the direction of an assistant coach, Peter Nupp (“Coach Nupp”). (See Id. ¶ 6; Doc. No. 1-6 (4-19-18 Superintendent Wendorf letter); Stroemple Aff. ¶ 6; Doc. No. 15-6 (Affidavit of Peter J. Nupp [“Nupp Aff.”]) ¶¶ 5-6.)

         During the 2018 track season, Coach Nupp twice instructed M.S. to practice pole vault jumps in the rain. It is Stokey's contention that, on each occasion, M.S. slipped off the pole and injured himself. (Compl. ¶ 6.) Subsequently, on April 3, 2018, Coach Nupp again asked M.S. to vault in the rain. “Per [Stokey's] instructions, [M.S.] declined and was suspended from pole vaulting at the April [5th], 2018 track meet.” (Doc. No. 1-1 (Affidavit Michael Stokey [“Stokey Aff.”]) ¶ 6; Compl. ¶ 7.)

         On April 4, 2018, Kristy Stokey, M.S.'s mother, sent an email to Coach Stroemple inquiring as to why M.S. had been suspended from the pole vault team for the April 5, 2018 track meet. (Compl. ¶ 8; see Doc. No. 1-2 (4-4-18 K. Stokey email) at 10[2].) In an email response, also dated April 4, 2018, Coach Stroemple explained that he deferred to Coach Nupp on matters relating to when and how the pole vaulters practice and added that Coach Nupp is always mindful of weather. He assured Ms. Stokey that Coach Nupp “will not allow jumpers to go up when he feels it is unsafe.” (Doc. No. 1-2 (4-8-18 Coach Stroemple email) at 11.) Nonetheless, he also stressed that, pursuant to team policy, if M.S. did not participate in the pole vaulting practices with Coach Nupp, he would “not be permitted to enter a pole vault event for Hoover[, ]” but that “he still [would have] the opportunity to compete in other events if he [was] at practice.” (Id.; Compl. ¶ 8.) Coach Stroemple stressed that these rules applied to all athletes who, like M.S., also receive private coaching for their events. (4-8-18 Coach Stroemple email at 11.)

         On April 5, 2018, Stokey emailed the high school athletic director, members of the school board, and Superintendent Wendorf, and proposed to change District policy to prohibit pole vaulting in the rain, and to allow student-athletes to refrain from unsafe activities without punishment.” (Compl. ¶ 9; Doc. No. 1-3 (4-5-18 Stokey email) at 14.) A school board member responded, instructing Stokey to follow the proper communication chain by speaking directly with the coach, then the athletic director, the principal, and finally with the superintendent. (Doc. No. 1-3 (board email response) at 14; Compl. ¶ 9.) Stokey claims that he followed this communication chain but was unable to convince the administration to adopt his proposals. (Compl. ¶ 10.)

         M.S. did compete as a pole vaulter in a high school track meet on April 10, 2018. (Nupp Aff. ¶ 9.) The School District maintains, and Stokey does not dispute, that during that meet Coach Nupp recommended that M.S. use a different pole to maximize his performance. Coach Nupp claims that M.S. disregarded the recommendation and ultimately failed at his attempts to clear the height. (Nupp Aff. ¶ 10.) During the same meet, the School District contends that, during a discussion with the coaching staff, M.S. and Stokey questioned Coach Nupp's knowledge of pole vaulting rules. (Nupp. Aff. ¶ 9.) The other coaches confirmed that Coach Nupp had the correct interpretation of the pole vault rules. (Stroemple Aff. ¶ 7.) After Coach Nupp left the discussion, M.S. stated that he did not believe that Coach Nupp knew what he was doing, negatively comparing Coach Nupp's coaching methods to that of M.S.'s private coach. (Stroemple Aff. ¶ 10.) Coach Stroemple warned M.S. that if he was unable to find a way to follow Coach Nupp's instructions, he would not be able to pole vault for the high school team. (Stroemple Aff. ¶ 12.)

         On April 11, 2018, Coaches Stroemple and Nupp met with M.S. to discuss the April 10, 2018 meet. (Nupp. Aff. ¶ 11.) It is the School District's position that M.S. advised that he would not follow Coach Nupp's instruction because it conflicted with the instruction he received at his private club. (Nupp. Aff. ¶ 11.) A second meeting was scheduled with members of school administration and Stokey for April 12, 2018. In anticipation of that meeting, Coach Nupp sent an email to Coach Stroemple outlining his concerns with M.S. and his parents. In that email, he offered his recommendation that M.S. be removed from the pole vaulting team because M.S. did not trust that Coach Nupp could provide a safe environment in which to compete. (Nupp. Aff. ¶ 13; Doc. No. 15-9 (4-12-18 Nupp email) at 113.)

         The April 12, 2018 meeting was attended by Stokey, Superintendent Wendorf, Athletic Director Walker, the principal of the high school, and Coaches Stroemple and Nupp. (Doc. No. 15-1 (Affidavit of Jeffrey Wendorf [“Wendorf Aff.”]) ¶ 8.) During the meeting, Stokey stated that M.S. would not vault in the rain. (Wendorf Aff. ¶ 8.) Superintendent Wendorf advised Stokey that if M.S. did not practice he would not be permitted to compete and that the administration trusted the judgment of its coaches. (Wendorf Aff. ¶ 8.)

         On April 18, 2018, Stokey attended a school board meeting where he again advocated for his proposed changes to the coaching policy, but his proposals were rejected. The following day (April 19, 2018), Stokey sent an email to the superintendent and the school board members indicating that he disagreed with their position but that he was appreciative of the opportunity to speak with them. (Id. ¶ 11, citing Doc. No. 1-5 (4-19-18 Stokey email).)

         Also on April 19, 2018, Coach Nupp sent a letter, dated April 18, 2018, to Athletic Director Walker outlining his concerns regarding M.S.'s continued participation in the pole vaulting program. In addition to M.S.'s refusal to vault in the rain, Coach Nupp cited his concern that M.S. and his parents intended for M.S. to only practice at M.S.'s private pole vaulting club but have the opportunity to compete with the high school squad.[3] Coach Nupp indicated that he believed that this would be a dangerous practice because it would not allow him to properly coach M.S. Coach Nupp also expressed his concern that it would send the wrong message to the other athletes that M.S. was receiving preferential treatment. (Nupp Aff. ¶ 15; 4-18-18 Nupp Letter at 114.) Additionally, Coach Nupp cited M.S.'s unwillingness to accept his instruction unless it was either consistent with the instruction M.S. was receiving at his private club or M.S. independently determined that Coach Nupp's instruction would work. (Id.) Coach Nupp indicated that “[t]his would appear to render my coaching useless. Although [M.S.] has shown signs of being coachable in other events he has not shown the same consideration or respect for my coaching. Therefore, I do not believe that I can coach him.” (Id.)

         Stokey received a letter, dated April 19, 2018, from Superintendent Wendorf advising Stokey that M.S. would no longer be permitted to participate on the pole vaulting team. Specifically, the letter 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 allegations and find them to be unsubstantiated. We trust and support our coaches' judgment regarding practices and safety conditions, and we fully support our coaches as the only people who will determine athlete participation in competitions.
Due to your concerns and lack of trust in our coaches, your son, [M.S.], is restricted from participating in North Canton City School District's pole vaulting program or using any district pole vault equipment or facilities from this point forward.

(Compl. ¶ 12; Doc. No. 1-6 (4-19-18 Superintendent Wendorf letter) at 31.) It is undisputed that M.S. is still a member of the track team and remains eligible to compete in non-pole vaulting events. (See Wendorf Aff. ¶ 16; Doc. No. 15-2 (Affidavit of Tim Walker [“Walker Aff.”]) ¶ 8.)

         On May 2, 2018, Stokey filed the present action in federal court, raising a single claim of First Amendment retaliation against the School District. Stokey claims that he was exercising his constitutional right of free speech by communicating with school officials and administration “regarding his proposed policy changes.” (Compl. ¶ 18.) He further avers that, in ...


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