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Cole v. Cobb County School District

United States District Court, N.D. Georgia, Atlanta Division

December 6, 2017

BONNIE COLE, Plaintiff,
COBB COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT and CHRIS RAGSDALE, Individually and in his capacity as Superintendent of Cobb County School District, Defendants.



         This matter is presently before the Court on a motion to dismiss the complaint, [Doc. 9], and a motion to dismiss the amended complaint, [Doc. 14], both filed by Defendants Cobb County School District (“CCSD”) and Cobb County School District Superintendent Chris Ragsdale (“Ragsdale”) pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons set forth below, the undersigned RECOMMENDS that the motion to dismiss the original complaint be DENIED AS MOOT, [Doc. 9], and that the motion to dismiss the amended complaint be GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART, [Doc. 14].

         I. Motion to Dismiss the Original Complaint

         Plaintiff Bonnie Cole, proceeding through counsel, initiated this action by complaint on April 18, 2017. [Doc. 1]. Defendants timely responded to the complaint on May 11, 2017, with a motion to dismiss. [Doc. 9]. Fourteen days later, on May 25, 2017, Plaintiff filed an amended complaint. [Doc. 11].

         Pursuant to Rule 15(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a party may amend her pleading once as a matter of course within twenty-one days after serving it or within twenty-one days after service of a motion under Rule 12(b)(6). Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(1). Plaintiff having filed her amended complaint within twenty-one days after Defendants' first motion to dismiss, the amended complaint was properly filed as a matter of course. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a)(1)(B); El-Saba v. Univ. of S. Ala., Civ. Action No. 15-00087-KD-N, 2015 WL 5849747, at *5 n.7 (S.D. Ala. Sept. 22, 2015) (noting that after defendant executed waiver of service, then filed motion to dismiss approximately two months later, plaintiff had additional twenty-one days to file amended complaint). Moreover, Defendants did not object to Plaintiff's having filed the amended complaint as a matter of course. [See Doc. 14-1 at 1 n.1 (acknowledging that “under operative law, ” Plaintiff's amended complaint took the place of her original complaint)]. The Court therefore accepts the amended complaint, [Doc. 11], as the operative complaint in this matter.

         In light of Plaintiff's having filed the amended complaint, the undersigned concludes that the motion to dismiss the original complaint should be denied as moot. [Doc. 9]. Plaintiff's amended complaint supersedes the original complaint. See Malowney v. Fed. Collection Deposit Grp., 193 F.3d 1342, 1345 n.1 (11th Cir. 1999) (“An amended complaint supersedes an original complaint.”); Varnes v. Local 91, Glass Bottle Blowers Ass'n, 674 F.2d 1365, 1370 n.6 (11th Cir. 1982) (“As a general rule, an amended complaint supersedes and replaces the original complaint unless the amendment specifically refers to or adopts the earlier pleading.”). Further, the amended complaint renders moot the motion to dismiss the original complaint because that motion seeks to dismiss a pleading that has been superseded. Fountain v. Hyundai Motor Co., Civ. Action No. 1:15-CV-00446-ELR, 2016 WL 4361528, at *2 (N.D.Ga. Mar. 4, 2016) (Ross, J.) (“The filing of the amended complaint has rendered the arguments contained in the first motion to dismiss moot.”); Mizzaro v. Home Depot, Inc., No. Civ. A. 1:06-CV-11510, 2007 WL 2254693, at *3 (N.D.Ga. July 18, 2007) (Evans, J.) (dismissing as moot a motion to dismiss addressing the original complaint following defendants' acceding to the filing of an amended complaint). Defendants also concede that the amended complaint moots their first motion to dismiss. [Doc. 14-1 at 1 n.1].

         Because the motion to dismiss the original complaint seeks to dismiss a pleading that has been superseded, the undersigned RECOMMENDS to the District Judge that he DENY AS MOOT the motion to dismiss the original complaint. [Doc. 9].

         II. Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint

         On June 8, 2017, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the amended complaint in its entirety. [Doc. 14]. On June 22, 2017, Plaintiff filed a response brief in opposition to the motion to dismiss, [Doc. 15], and on July 13, 2017, Defendants filed a reply brief in support of their motion, [Doc. 18].[1] With briefing complete, the undersigned now examines the motion and submits this Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) for the District Judge's consideration.

         A. Facts[2]

         Plaintiff began working for CCSD in 1998, as a teacher at Vaughan Elementary School. [Doc. 11 ¶ 11]. In 2004, Plaintiff became Assistant Administrator of Bullard Elementary School. [Id. ¶ 12]. Two years later, in 2006, Plaintiff became Assistant Principal of Bullard Elementary School. [Id. ¶ 13]. Plaintiff is a practicing Christian. [Id. ¶ 15].

         During the 2014-2015 school year, Plaintiff and several other teachers implemented breathing and stretching exercises based on yoga[3] and meditation[4] in classrooms as a way of reducing stress and encouraging relaxation among Bullard's teachers and students. [Id. ¶ 16]. Plaintiff did not consider the techniques to be religious or based in religion. [Id. ¶ 17]. The mindfulness practices consisted of well-established techniques used to promote general well-being, facilitate education, and reduce disruptive behaviors. [Id. ¶ 18]. With teacher input, Plaintiff and others also decorated a faculty room with soft lighting, fountains, and peaceful music, and designated it a place where faculty could relax in a quiet environment: where they could “take a few deep breaths, color mandalas, [5] or play with kinetic sand.” [Id. ¶ 20]. In July 2015, Plaintiff became a licensed reiki practitioner[6] and opened a side business offering reiki services to the public, but she did not perform reiki or promote her practice at the school. [Id. ¶¶ 25, 26].

         The mindfulness program was similar to programs introduced elsewhere in CCSD, including the Department of Physical Education and the county counseling department. [Id. ¶ 22]. In February 2016, Bullard Elementary sent a newsletter to parents stating that mindfulness practices included “piping music through the hallways, ” “decorating and painting, ” “yoga sequences, ” and “mindful quiet time.” [Id. ¶ 19]. After implementing the mindfulness practices, Bullard Elementary documented a thirty-three-percent decrease in disruptive behaviors and policy violations for the period spanning November 2, 2015, through March 4, 2016. [Id. ¶¶ 23-24].

         During the 2015-2016 school year, some parents who attended church with Defendant Ragsdale and the Chair of CCSD's board, Randy Scamihorn, made religion-based complaints to Ragsdale about Plaintiff's use of mindfulness practices at Bullard Elementary. [Id. ¶ 27]. Ragsdale expressed his support for the complaints and advised the parents that such information “helps tremendously.” [Id. ¶ 28].

         On February 29, 2016, CCSD received an anonymous letter complaining about the use of mindfulness practices. [Id. ¶ 29]. Five members of the CCSD board also received the anonymous letter. [Id. ¶ 29]. CCSD then received emails from parents stating, among other things, that Plaintiff was a Buddhist[7] trying to indoctrinate their children with Buddhism. [Id. ¶ 30]. Plaintiff was also falsely accused of leading chants in the hallways, placing stones on children in an effort to “heal” them, forcing children to color mandalas green for Buddha, and requiring children to bow to her in hallways. [Id. ¶ 31]. Plaintiff was also accused of attempting to indoctrinate children into Buddhism by reading the book “Peaceful Piggy Meditation, ” which was written by a Jewish author and does not espouse any particular religion, but merely describes the practice of meditation. [Id. ¶ 33].

         Plaintiff denied the allegations, and CCSD's investigations failed to substantiate them. [Id. ¶ 32]. On March 16, 2016, several parents held a prayer rally on the grounds of Bullard Elementary “for Jesus to rid the school of Buddhism.” [Id. ¶ 34]. The next day, two women stood outside Plaintiff's office with their hands on her windows, praying. [Id. ¶ 34]. Community members posted selectively chosen and out-of-context passages from Plaintiff's personal business website in an effort to attack her “evil practices, ” forcing her to take the web page down. [Id. ¶ 35]. Defendants became aware that the controversy attracted national attention from the media, including the Washington Post. [Id. ¶ 36].

         Initially, several members of CCSD's administration voiced support for Plaintiff and assured her that the situation was “not her fault” and that she would not be moved. [Id. ¶ 37]. On March 17, 2016, the principal of Bullard Elementary, Patrice Moore, held a meeting-open to all parents-to explain mindfulness and to answer questions. [Id. ¶ 38].

         At some time after the meeting, an attendee sent emails to CCSD, Ragsdale, and CCSD's human resources department in which he summarized his concerns and stated that he could not see how the school community could heal if Plaintiff were allowed to stay in her job. [Id. ¶ 39]. During the same period of time, the CCSD board, including Ragsdale, received numerous emails of support from parents, teachers, a school psychologist, speech-language pathologists, and special educators, praising Plaintiff, her work, and the practices of mindfulness and yoga as showing positive results with students. [Id. ¶ 40].

         In March 2016, CCSD halted all mindfulness practices at Bullard Elementary and issued a statement to that effect. [Id. ¶ 44]. The statement did not state that the practices were in fact secular or defend Plaintiff against the false accusations. [Id. ¶ 45].

         Fearing for her job, Plaintiff asked certain members of CCSD district leadership to support her in defending herself from the false allegations. [Id. ¶ 46]. She also stated to at least two members of the district leadership-John Adams and Grant Rivera-that she was being discriminated against based on community members' beliefs about her religion. [Id.].

         On March 24, 2016, Ragsdale and CCSD's board voted to move Plaintiff to another school, Mableton Elementary, sixteen miles further from her home. [Id. ¶¶ 47, 48]. The transfer added an hour to Plaintiff's daily commute. [Id. ¶ 49]. Mableton Elementary is also a lower-performing school and offers fewer academics, sports, and extra-curricular activities than Bullard Elementary. [Id. ¶ 49].

         B. Claims

         In her amended complaint, Plaintiff asserts claims against CCSD pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., for “reverse religious discrimination, ” (Count I), and retaliation, (Count II), and she asserts claims against CCSD and Ragsdale pursuant to the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, as enforced through 42 U.S.C. § 1983, (Counts III and IV, respectively). [Doc. 11 ¶¶ 1, 51-78].

         C. Legal Standard

         To avoid dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.' ” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). In evaluating the sufficiency of a complaint, a court “must accept the facts pleaded as true and construe them in a light most favorable to [the] plaintiff[].” Quality Foods de Centro Am., S.A. v. Latin Am. Agribusiness Dev. Corp., S.A., 711 F.2d 989, 994-95 (11th Cir. 1983). At the same time, however, a court should not accept “conclusory allegations, unwarranted deductions of facts or legal conclusions masquerading as facts.” Oxford Asset Mgmt., Ltd. v. Jaharis, 297 F.3d 1182, 1188 (11th Cir. 2002). And while a complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, mere “labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555; accord Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79 (“Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice” and are “not entitled to the assumption of truth.”). Rather, plaintiffs are required to make factual allegations that are “enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Complaints must “contain either direct or inferential allegations respecting all the material elements necessary to sustain a recovery under some viable legal theory.” Fin. Sec. Assurance, Inc. v. Stephens, Inc., 500 F.3d 1276, 1282-83 (11th Cir. 2007) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted). The court also may dismiss a complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) when, on the basis of a dispositive issue of law, no construction of the factual allegations will support the cause of action. Marshall Cnty. Bd. of Educ. v. Marshall Cnty. Gas Dist., 992 F.2d 1171, 1174 (11th Cir. 1993).

         D. Discussion

         Defendants seek dismissal of all of the claims asserted in the amended complaint. [Doc. 14]. The Court will analyze Defendants' motion to dismiss with regard to each of Plaintiff's claims, considering the arguments in logical order.

         1. Title VII

         Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to h[er] compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Title VII also makes it unlawful for an employer to retaliate against an employee because: (1) “[s]he has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by [Title VII], ” or (2) “[s]he has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under [Title VII].” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a) .

         To state a claim under Title VII, a plaintiff must allege that the defendant's actions were purposefully discriminatory and motivated by discrimination. See Gen. Bldg. Contractors Assoc., Inc. v. Pennsylvania, 458 U.S. 375, 391 (1982) (holding that “[42 U.S.C.] § 1981, like the Equal Protection Clause, can be violated only by purposeful discrimination”)[8]; Bernstein v. Ga. Dep't of Educ., 970 F.Supp.2d 1340, 1355 (N.D.Ga. 2013) (Duffey, J.) (reciting standard in context of summary judgment motion). A plaintiff can support her claim with direct or circumstantial evidence. Dixon v. The Hallmark Cos., 627 F.3d 849, 854 (11th Cir. 2010); EEOC v. Joe's Stone Crabs, Inc., 296 F.3d 1265, 1272 (11th Cir. 2002).

         a. “Reverse” Religious ...

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