Ninth Circuit Upholds Decision To Expel Student For Creating A “Hit List” And Solidifies Standard For Student Discipline For Off-Campus Expression.

June 2019
Number 30

Confirming a point which seems to make good sense, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that school officials may discipline students for the student’s off-campus expression, where the expression constitutes a credible, identifiable threat to others in the school community, even if the student did not intend to communicate such speech to any third party.

Background

In McNeil v. Sherwood School District 88J, the personal journal of a sophomore high school student, CLM, was discovered by his mother which contained graphic depictions of violence and a “hit list” of 22 students and one former school employee who “must die.” Upon learning of the journal, law enforcement officers searched CLM’s residence and found several weapons, including a gun and 525 rounds of ammunition belonging to CLM, but “found nothing ‘to indicate any planning had gone into following through on the hit list.'”

Once on notice of CLM’s hit list, CLM’s school district’s policies required the school to notify the parents of the 22 students on the list within 12 hours. While the district was still in the process of making these necessary calls, mayhem broke loose; calls flooded in from parents and media outlets; parents kept their children home from school for several days; and some parents even transferred their children out of the district. Subsequently, the district expelled CLM for one year because news of the existence of his hit list significantly disrupted the learning environment at school and his return would only amplify that disruption. CLM sued the district for violating his First Amendment free speech rights. The United States District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the district, and CLM appealed.

The Ninth Circuit’s Analysis

The Ninth Circuit began its analysis with two inquiries: (1) whether the district could permissibly restrict or regulate CLM’s off-campus speech; and (2) if so, whether the District’s decision to expel CLM for off-campus speech violated the his free speech rights under the First Amendment as framed by the standard for regulating student speech under the Supreme Court’s opinion in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) 393 U.S. 503.

The Ninth Circuit noted that the court had not previously settled on a test for when a school can restrict or regulate off-campus student speech, but pointed to the approaches taken in past similar cases. The two approaches rely upon the following respective bases for speech restriction or regulation:

  • that the off-campus expression have a sufficient “nexus” to school; and
  • that it be reasonably foreseeable that the off-campus expression will reach the school community.

Whether expression bears a significant nexus to school is flexible and fact-specific, and relevant considerations include: (1) the degree of likelihood of harm to the school caused by the speech; (2) whether it is reasonably foreseeable that the speech will reach and impact the school; and (3) the relationship between the content and the context of the speech and school. The Court explained that under this approach, there is always a sufficient nexus between the speech and the school when the school district reasonably concludes that it faces a credible, identifiable threat of school violence, pointing to the fact that schools must make all efforts to ensure warning signs do not turn to tragedy.

The Ninth Circuit concluded that it was reasonable for the district to conclude that CLM presented a credible threat of severe harm to the school; the district could reasonably foresee that the news of the threat would reach and impact the school and disrupt the school environment; and the content of the speech involved the school. CLM’s argument that he had no intent to communicate the speech at issue to anyone else was of no moment for the Court. Rather, the Ninth Circuit expressly rejected that argument, and reaffirmed the Court’s prior holding that, “regardless of the speaker’s intent or how speech comes to a school district’s attention, a school district may take disciplinary action in response to off-campus speech when it reasonably determines that it faces an identifiable and credible threat of school violence.” The Court did, however, draw a distinction between a perceived threat and an identifiable and credible threat-the former of which would not so easily permit for regulation or student discipline by a school district.

Lastly, the Ninth Circuit upheld CLM’s expulsion, while also noting CLM had not challenged the duration of the expulsion. The Court noted that at a certain point, discipline may lose its basis in reasonable, ongoing concerns of campus safety, disruption, or interference with the rights of other students, and instead become primarily a punitive, retrospective response to the student’s speech. The Court’s sentiments arguably suggest a view by the panel judges that a one year expulsion was excessive given the facts of this case.

Takeaways

McNeil solidifies that school districts must look to the totality of the circumstances when considering student discipline for expression occurring off-campus, and therefore school districts must determine whether the speech at issue bears a sufficient nexus to the school. Although there is always a sufficient nexus between speech and the school when the district reasonably concludes that it faces a credible, identifiable threat of school violence, this must be distinguished from threats that are merely perceived. Additionally, school districts should measure the scope and duration of the discipline imposed within the context of the school district’s right to regulate or restrict speech.

If you have any questions about this case or student discipline matters in general, please contact the authors of this Client News Brief or an attorney at one of our eight offices located statewide. You can also subscribe to our podcast, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn or download our mobile app.

Written by:

Sarah L. Garcia

Partner

Bailey A. McCabe

Associate

©2019 Lozano Smith

As the information contained herein is necessarily general, its application to a particular set of facts and circumstances may vary. For this reason, this News Brief does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with your counsel prior to acting on the information contained herein.

Local Governments Maintain Aesthetic Control Over Their Rights Of Way

June 2019
Number 29

A public agency’s right to enforce reasonable aesthetic criteria on telecommunications installations is a valid exercise of power. So says the California Supreme Court in its recent ruling inT-Mobile West LLC v. City and County of San Francisco (T-Mobile) (April 4, 2019, S238001) __ Cal. __. In a long-awaited decision by local governments and wireless carriers alike, the court held that local government ordinances requiring aesthetic guidelines for equipment erected by wireless telephone companies were neither preempted by, nor in violation of, state law. Thus, cities and counties need not fear a loss of community quality and aesthetic beauty as a result of unattractive telecommunications installations.

Background

For decades, local governments have battled over the amount of aesthetic control they hold over wireless telecommunications carriers constructing telecommunication facilities located in public rights of way. This struggle by cities and counties to maintain their local character has presented valid concerns regarding the extent of local government regulatory authority. The T-Mobile case settles this squabble by providing local governments with clear authority to establish aesthetic guidelines for wireless carriers locating equipment in public rights of way.

Analysis

In T-Mobile, plaintiffs, national telecommunications carriers including T-Mobile and Crown Castle contended that defendant, the City and County of San Francisco’s (City) ordinance which established aesthetic guidelines was preempted by California state law. They asserted that California Public Utilities Code (CPUC) section 7901 preempted the local rule and, even if not preempted, the ordinance violated CPUC section 7901.1 by singling out wireless telecommunications carriers for regulation.

Plaintiffs’ preemption argument stemmed from the parties’ disagreement over their interpretation of section 7901 which permits wireless carriers to construct and maintain cell towers and wireless facilities along public roads “in such manner and at such points as not toincommode the public use of the road…” Plaintiffs asserted a narrow interpretation of section 7901 stating that the statute granted them the right to construct and erect equipment along public roads, and local governments could not prevent such construction, so long as Plaintiffs did not “obstruct the path of travel.” The court disagreed with Plaintiffs, holding that the City’s ordinance is not preempted by section 7901, concluding that obstructing the path of travel was just one of multiple ways that public road use could be disturbed or made inconvenient, and that the City retained inherent local police power to regulate the manner and location of telephone line installations of all types. Ruling in favor of the City, the court stated that the statute “leaves room for additional local action” and that there are “significant local interests relating to road use that may vary by jurisdictions.”

Plaintiffs additionally asserted that the City’s ordinance violated CPUC section 7901.1, which provides that local governments may “exercise reasonable control as to the time, place, and manner” in which roads are “accessed,” and that the control must “be applied to all entities in an equivalent manner. Considering the legislative history of section 7901.1, the court held that the statute only applies to temporary access during construction and installation of telephone lines and equipment, and the City’s ordinance did not violate the statute because the City did not discriminate amongst entities when regulating temporary access to public rights of way.

Takeaways

The T-Mobile case is a win for cities and counties seeking to maintain their unique character during a time of increased necessity for cell towers and other wireless facilities. The Court here provided clear guidance on local government authority to regulate aesthetics of telecommunication equipment. This may set the stage for future Federal Communications Commission rule-making to attempt to limit this well-deserved affirmation of local control and community quality of life.

If you have any questions about this case or regulation of public rights of way in general, please contact the authors of this Client News Brief or an attorney at one of our eight offices located statewide. You can also subscribe to our podcast, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn or download our mobile app.

Written by:

William P. Curley III

Partner

Lauren Kawano

Associate

©2019 Lozano Smith

As the information contained herein is necessarily general, its application to a particular set of facts and circumstances may vary. For this reason, this News Brief does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with your counsel prior to acting on the information contained herein.

Know Your Role, Know Your Risk

June 2019
Number 28

A Civic Center Act provision that allocates liability between a school district and the users of school facilities means what it says, according to a recent decision by the California Court of Appeal. In Grossman v. Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, the court found the district was not liable for injuries suffered by a parent-attendee at a carnival held by a booster group at one of the district’s schools. The court also highlighted the statute’s intent that school districts and users of school facilities bear their own costs in insuring against risk and liability resulting from use of those facilities.

Facilities Use and Liability Under the Civic Center Act

Education Code section 38130 et seq., also known as the Civic Center Act, requires school districts to allow community groups to use district-owned facilities under certain conditions and allocates liability between the school district and the user of those facilities. Under Education Code section 38134(i)(1), “an entity using school facilities or grounds . . . is liable for an injury resulting from the negligence of that entity during the use of the school facilities or grounds,” while a school district “is liable for an injury resulting from the negligence of the school district in the ownership and maintenance of the school facilities or grounds.” The same section also requires school districts and users to “each bear the cost of insuring against its respective risks,” as well as the cost of defense for “claims arising from those risks.”

A school district’s liability for “ownership and maintenance” of its facilities and grounds only arises when the district would be liable under Government Code section 835 for “a dangerous condition of public property.” That form of liability arises from (1) negligent acts of a school district employee, or (2) notice of the dangerous condition with time to mitigate the danger.

The Grossman Case

In Grossman, the school district approved a booster group’s plans for a carnival on school grounds, but did not otherwise involve itself in the planning, set up, or oversight of the carnival. At the event, the plaintiff, a carnival attendee, was injured when an inflatable slide collapsed and he fell over 20 feet onto the concrete below. Similar slides were used at prior carnivals without incident.

The plaintiff sued the district, the booster group, and party rental and event companies for negligence. The plaintiff alleged that the slide was improperly set up, and was not secured to the ground with stakes. The plaintiff further alleged that the district did not inspect the slide or make sure that the operators properly assembled the slide.

The court ruled that the negligent set-up and operation of the inflatable slide, rather than any dangerous condition of the district’s property, was the cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. The slide was not a condition of the school grounds because it was a temporary feature that was removed after the event. Moreover, the district did not have notice of any purported dangerous condition because similar slides had been used at the booster group’s carnival in prior years without incident, and no complaints were made about the slide being improperly set up before the incident. Because the plaintiff’s claim was based on negligent set-up and operation of the slide, and not on a dangerous condition of the property, the court held that the district could not be liable for negligence under the Civic Center Act.

In its ruling, the court discussed the legislative history of the Civic Center Act’s liability apportionment statute. In particular, the court noted objections by booster groups and similar organizations to substantial insurance coverage and indemnification obligations required by school districts for use of facilities under the Civic Center Act. The legislation provided that such costs were considered costs of maintenance and management that should be borne by the property owner, rather than the user, however, the legislative history underscored the Legislature’s intent that the Civic Center Act not broaden a school district’s liability beyond that narrow scope. The court emphasizes that the liability apportionment statute requires each party bear its own costs associated with protecting against liability.

Takeaways

The Grossman case serves as a good reminder that liability is apportioned based on a school district or user’s respective role, as are the costs to protect against that liability, and while a school district cannot shift its statutory liability to facility users, it also cannot be held liable for injuries resulting from the user’s negligence, even if the incident occurred on school grounds.

For additional information regarding the Civic Center Act or facilities use and liability, please contact the authors of this Client News Brief or an attorney at one of our eight offices located statewide. You can also subscribe to our podcast, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn or download our mobile app.

Written by:

Claudia P. Weaver

Partner

Wesley L. Carlson

Associate

©2019 Lozano Smith

As the information contained herein is necessarily general, its application to a particular set of facts and circumstances may vary. For this reason, this News Brief does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with your counsel prior to acting on the information contained herein.

Letter Saves City From Potential Brown Act Violations

June 2019
Number 27

Sometimes public entities stumble despite their best efforts to dutifully comply with the Brown Act. Fortunately, the Brown Act allows these entities to fix certain violations by identifying the problem and promising never to do it again.

Public entities faced with allegations of Brown Act violations can look to TransparentGov Novato v. City of Novato as a guide to avoid ensuing litigation.

TransparentGov Novato v. City of Novato

In TransparentGov Novato, a group of city residents filed a lawsuit against the City of Novato. Before filing suit, the group had sent a letter to the City alleging a Brown Act violation after councilmembers discussed a controversial project which was not on the agenda, and subsequently voted to establish a subcommittee to consider the project at a future meeting. In a responding letter, the City promised that going forward it would only create subcommittees if the item is on an agenda. The City also amended its own policy manual requiring all requests for future agenda items to be in writing. TransparentGov Novato filed suit after the City issued the letter and amended its policy.

In affirming the trial court’s decision in favor of the City, the Court of Appeal found that the underlying basis for the lawsuit had been resolved because the City had amended its policy and “provided an ‘unconditional commitment to cease, desist from, and not repeat the [allegedly wrongful] past action.'” The court was persuaded by the unequivocal nature of the City’s new policy to support its conclusion that there was “no reasonable basis to believe that [the] past action would be repeated.” The court acknowledged that while policy changes do not automatically invalidate pending Brown Act litigation, the policy change in this case was adopted before TransparentGov Novato filed suit. The timing of the adoption convinced the court that it was less likely that the City would repeat the alleged violation. The court affirmed the trial court’s judgment and awarded the City of Novato its costs on appeal.

Takeaways

The TransparentGov Novato case emphasizes the fact that the Brown Act requires courts to dismiss lawsuits alleging Brown Act violations when public entities provide an “unconditional commitment” to stop and not repeat the allegedly wrongful past action. (Gov. Code, § 54960.2, subds. (c)(1) & (3).) A letter by itself does not necessarily guarantee that a court will determine that the public entity provided an “unconditional commitment.” Actions speak louder than words, and courts will take the public entity’s other actions into consideration before making a determination.

Public entities already facing viable allegations of Brown Act violations may want to consider adopting or changing their policies in a manner that unequivocally negates the prospect that the alleged violation will reoccur. If the public entity determines that a particular allegation is viable and decides to amend or adopt its policy, it should do so before a lawsuit is filed, if possible.

If you have any questions about TransparentGov Novato v. City of Novato, or the Brown Act in general, please contact the authors of this Client News Brief or an attorney at one of our eight offices located statewide. You can also subscribe to our podcast, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn or download our mobile app.

Written by:

Manuel F. Martinez

Partner

Tina C. Mirzazadeh

Associate

©2019 Lozano Smith

As the information contained herein is necessarily general, its application to a particular set of facts and circumstances may vary. For this reason, this News Brief does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with your counsel prior to acting on the information contained herein.

“Limited Due Process” Appropriate For Subcontractor Substitution Hearings

June 2019
Number 26

The California Court of Appeal recently outlined an appropriate level of due process required for a subcontractor substitution hearing. In JMS Air Conditioning and Appliance Service, Inc. v. Santa Monica Community College District (2018) 30 Cal.App.5th 945, the court found that the hearing process used by the Santa Monica Community College District (College) provided the “limited due process” required for a substitution hearing. The JMS AirConditioning decision provides guidance for school districts, community colleges and cities as to how to conduct these hearings.

Subcontractor Substitution Procedure

The Subletting and Subcontracting Fair Practices Act (Pub. Contract Code, § 4100 et seq.) (Subcontracting Act) identifies the reasons why a contractor may substitute one subcontractor for another, and prescribes the process for the substitution, including a detailed notice procedure that states if the subcontractor files written objections, the awarding authority must hold a hearing and give the subcontractor at least five days’ notice of the hearing. However, the Subcontracting Act does not provide any specific procedures or standards for conducting the hearing.JMS Air Conditioning focused on what was required for conducting the substitution hearing and provides useful guidance for a valid hearing.

Limited Due Process

JMS Air Conditioning held that only “limited due process” is required for a substitution hearing. The court reasoned that, because the Subcontracting Act created only limited rights for the subcontractor, a lesser degree of due process protections are needed compared to other proceedings. The formalities of a trial are not required and the substitution hearing is “informal [in] nature, narrow [in] scope.” This can be contrasted with, for example, a public employee dismissal hearing where a higher degree of due process is required to protect the public employee’s fundamental right to employment. In this regard, the court stated that the College “is an educational institution, and the primary purpose of its governing board is thus to educate-not to referee construction disputes.”

The College’s Hearing Process

The characteristics of the College’s substitution hearing included the following:

Neutral Hearing Officer. The hearing was conducted by the College’s facilities manager, who was “generally knowledgeable about the project.” The subcontractor argued that instead the hearing should have been conducted by the college’s governing board. The court found that the Subcontracting Act did not require the governing board to conduct the hearing itself, noting that it would be an inefficient allocation of public resources and that the governing board “does not necessarily have any background in construction.” The subcontractor had the opportunity to present its case to a neutral decision maker, which the court found to be sufficient.

Advanced Notice of Grounds for Substitution. The subcontractor received a detailed description of the reasons for the substitution request prior to the substitution hearing. Written position statements (discussed below) were also submitted before the hearing. This permitted the subcontractor to prepare and respond to the general contractor’s allegations and legal arguments at the hearing.

Presenting Written Evidence and Argument. Both the general contractor and subcontractor were permitted to submit written statements detailing their positions. No page limits were set on these statements and no limits were placed on the number of exhibits or written witness statements the parties could submit. The subcontractor had an unlimited opportunity to present documents, written witness statements and argument. Witness statements were not sworn, but were accepted by the hearing officer.

Examining Witnesses. The subcontractor had the opportunity to present in-person witnesses and oral argument at the hearing. The witnesses were not examined under oath. Cross-examination of witnesses was not permitted, but the court found this did not deprive the subcontractor of due process.

Length of Hearing. The hearing officer limited the length of the hearing to two hours. The parties were advised of this in advance. The court held that “[n]othing in [the Subcontracting Act] requires a hearing of a particular length or the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses.”

Conclusion

The court found these characteristics of the College’s hearing process satisfied the due process requirements of the Subcontracting Act. Fundamentally, due process requires affording the subcontractor an opportunity to “meaningfully defend itself.” The court held that the College’s hearing afforded the subcontractor that opportunity.

Takeaways

The Subcontracting Act requires only “limited due process” for substitution hearings. The College’s hearing in JMS Air Conditioning satisfied that requirement and can be used as an example for other public entity’s substitution hearings. Though not an issue considered by this court, best practices generally also include presenting a hearing officer’s decision to the governing board for approval of the substitution decision. This case was followed by another subcontractor substitution case that also strengthened a public entity’s rights regarding substitution. (See 2019 Client News Brief No. 25.)

If you would like more information about this case or have any questions related to public works projects generally, please contact the authors of this Client News Brief or an attorney at one of our eight offices located statewide. You can also subscribe to our podcast, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn or download our mobile app.

Written by:

Ruth E. Mendyk

Partner

Wesley L. Carlson

Associate

©2019 Lozano Smith

As the information contained herein is necessarily general, its application to a particular set of facts and circumstances may vary. For this reason, this News Brief does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with your counsel prior to acting on the information contained herein.

Appellate Court Concludes That Public Entities May Initiate Substitution Of A Subcontractor

June 2019
Number 25

In Synergy Project Management, Inc. v. City and County of San Francisco, certified for publication on March 14, 2019, the California Court of Appeal concluded that awarding agencies, like prime contractors, have the power to request substitution of a subcontractor under Public Contract Code section 4107 (hereafter referred to as Section 4107).

Background

The City and County of San Francisco (City) had awarded a contract to Ghilotti Bros., Inc. (Ghilotti) for a major renovation of Haight Street. Ghilotti had listed Synergy Project Management, Inc. (Synergy) as the subcontractor for excavation and utilities work. Unfortunately, during the project, Synergy broke five gas lines and engaged in numerous other unsafe practices. As a result, the City, pursuant to Section 4107 and a specific provision in the construction contract, directed Ghilotti to remove Synergy from the project and substitute a new subcontractor to perform the remaining excavation and utilities work.

Under protest, Ghilotti removed Synergy from the project and proposed two potential replacement contractors. Synergy objected to its replacement and a hearing was held pursuant to Section 4107. At the conclusion of the hearing, the hearing officer determined that Synergy’s unsafe practices rendered its work “substantially unsatisfactory and not in substantial accordance with the plans and specifications,” which established a ground for substitution. Synergy and Ghilotti challenged this determination at the trial court, arguing that the hearing officer’s determination was invalid because Section 4107 does not authorize an owner to remove a subcontractor, except upon a request initiated by the prime contractor. The trial court agreed based on the plain language of Section 4107, and the City filed an appeal.

The Court’s Decision

The Court of Appeal disagreed with the trial court and concluded that while Section 4107 “contemplates that the prime contractor will normally be the party to seek substitution, the procedure followed [in this case] ‘complied in substance with every reasonable objective of the statute. [citation omitted.]'” The court reasoned that the intent of the larger statutory framework encompassing Section 4107, the Subletting and Subcontracting Fair Practices Act (the Act), was intended to prevent “bid shopping” and “bid peddling” after the award of a public contract. The court acknowledged that the Act afforded subcontractors certain rights, such as Section 4107, which ensures the listed subcontractor is permitted to perform the subcontract, unless statutory grounds exist for valid substitution.

However, the court also noted that the Act gives owners the power to investigate and approve any subcontractor whether proposed in the original bid or as a substitute. Here, the court concluded there was no risk of bid shopping or bid peddling because the substitution was related to Synergy’s substandard performance of the work, which serves as a valid ground for substitution. Therefore, the City was within its investigatory power to seek substitution and had not violated the rights of Synergy under the Act.

Takeaways

In light of this decision, public agencies can now consider initiating the substitution process for a subcontractor on a public works project, as long as a valid ground for substitution exists under Section 4107. This is the second subcontractor substitution case in the last few months that strengthens a public entity’s rights regarding substitution. (See 2019 Client News Brief No. 26.)

If you would like more information about this case or have any questions related to public works projects generally, please contact the authors of this Client News Brief or an attorney at one of our eight offices located statewide. You can also subscribe to our podcast, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn or download our mobile app.

Written by:

Arne B. Sandberg

Partner

©2019 Lozano Smith

As the information contained herein is necessarily general, its application to a particular set of facts and circumstances may vary. For this reason, this News Brief does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with your counsel prior to acting on the information contained herein.