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Dodge City still can’t dodge due process and free speech lawsuit

The wheels of justice continue to turn in a case at Dodge City Community College, which is being sued by a student who alleges that the college violated his First Amendment rights and his right to due process. Two weeks ago, a federal judge in Kansas denied the college’s motion for summary judgment, a ruling which represents a win for student rights.

A few basic facts are necessary to understanding the court’s latest opinion. On Dec. 5, 2016, student Lyle VanNahmen met with Dodge City’s president, Harold Nolte, and expressed his opposition to a proposed land deal involving the college. A few days later, on Dec. 8, 2016, VanNahmen attempted to meet with Nolte a second time to present Nolte with a letter demanding his resignation. Four days later, VanNahmen received a notice that he had violated Dodge City’s Student Code of Behavior, but it wasn’t until March that he received a charge letter. Worse yet, as we explained in August, that letter stated only that he was being charged with engaging in threatening or disruptive conduct on Dec. 5, 2017 or Dec. 8, 2017. (Evidently, the letter meant either Dec. 5 or 8, 2016). After VanNahmen was suspended for four years as a result of  the charges, he sued his school.

After VanNahmen filed suit, Dodge City filed a motion to dismiss, which was the subject of our previous coverage. Dodge City then moved for summary judgment and made four basic arguments. (A motion for summary judgment asks the court to determine as a matter of law that one party won the case because there are no disputed factual issues.) First, it argued that VanNahmen should have appealed the decision in state court pursuant to a Kansas statute setting forth the appellate jurisdiction of Kansas courts, K.S.A. § 60–2101(d). Dodge City then argued that VanNahmen’s failure to bring his appeal in state court meant that the results of the disciplinary hearing could not be challenged. Dodge City then addressed the merits and argued that VanNahmen had received a constitutional level of due process. Finally, the school argued that VanNahmen did not have a First Amendment claim because he had engaged in unprotected intimidating and threatening behavior.

The court denied Dodge City’s motion in its entirety. To begin, the judge found “no merit” to the college’s argument that the court lacked authority to hear the case because VanNahmen’s decision to seek relief in federal court gave the disciplinary hearing final and preclusive effect. In fact, the court wrote that Dodge City failed to “address, let alone distinguish, binding U.S. Supreme Court and Tenth Circuit precedent...” The court held that K.S.A. § 60–2101(d) is a “procedural statute identifying when various state courts have jurisdiction to hear appeals” — not something that precludes a plaintiff from having constitutional claims adjudicated in federal court.

The court also found meritless Dodge City’s argument that VanNahmen should have been forced to appeal the decision in state court under the principles of res judicata (a legal doctrine forbidding parties from relitigating issues after a court issues a judgment). The court found res judicata inapplicable because there was no final judgment, and also because Dodge City failed to show that the disciplinary hearing afforded VanNahmen the same due process rights he would have gotten in court.

In other words, Dodge City’s shoddy campus disciplinary procedures prevented it from arguing that its disciplinary hearing had preclusive effect. Judge Melgren was concerned that Beverly Temaat, Dodge City’s Vice President of Student Affairs, served as the “Chief Judicial Officer” and took on prosecutorial and adjudicative roles in the proceedings, effectively allowing her to serve as prosecutor, judge, and jury.

The court then held that there were material facts in dispute as to whether VanNahmen was deprived of due process. Mirroring its analysis of the college’s res judicata argument, the court found that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether there had been an impartial decision-maker at VanNahmen’s hearing.

Finally, the court denied Dodge City summary judgment as to VanNahmen’s First Amendment retaliation claim. As the court stated, in order to prevail on the claim, VanNahmen would have to show that:

“(1) he engaged in protected activity, (2) Defendant’s actions caused him to suffer an ‘injury that would chill a person of ordinary firmness from continuing to engage in that activity,’ and (3) the Defendant’s conduct was ‘substantially motivated as a response to [Plaintiff’s] protected conduct.’” [Quoting Mocek v. City of Albuquerque, 813 F.3d 912, 930 (10th Cir. 2015).]

First, Judge Melgren found that Dodge City had conceded that VanNahmen’s meeting with Nolte, and the delivery of a letter calling for Nolte’s resignation, were protected by the First Amendment. Next, Judge Melgren found that there was a question of material fact as to the third element of the retaliation claim, whether the decision to charge and discipline VanNahmen was substantially motivated by his expressive activity.

Taken as a whole, this opinion is a win for student rights. Judge Melgren held that Kansas law did not preclude VanNahmen from having his case heard in federal court and found that there were genuine questions about material facts in the case. Had Dodge City carried the day, not only would VanNahmen have been unable to proceed, but future students could have found the courthouse doors barred to their claims.  

FIRE will continue to monitor this case and keep our readers informed of any developments.

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