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Cole v. Cobb County School District

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

January 18, 2018

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 before the Court on Magistrate Judge Alan J. Baverman's Non-Final Report and Recommendation [20] (“Non-Final R&R”). The Non-Final R&R recommends that the Court grant in part and deny in part Defendants Cobb County School District and Chris Ragsdale's (collectively, “Defendants”) Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint [14] (“Motion to Dismiss”). Also before the Court are Defendant Cobb County School District's Objections to the Magistrate's Non-Final R&R [22] (“Objections”).

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Facts[1]

         In 1998, Plaintiff began working for Cobb County School District (“CCSD”) as a teacher at Vaughan Elementary School. (First Amended Complaint [11] ¶ 11). In 2004, Plaintiff became Assistant Administrator of Bullard Elementary School (“Bullard”). (Id. ¶ 12). Two years later, in 2006, Plaintiff became Assistant Principal of Bullard. (Id. ¶ 13). During the 2014-15 school year, Plaintiff and several other teachers implemented in the classrooms breathing and stretching exercises based on yoga[2] and meditation[3] in an effort to reduce stress and encourage relaxation among Bullard's teachers and students. (Id. ¶ 16). Plaintiff did not consider the techniques to be religious or based in religion. (Id. ¶ 17). Plaintiff is a practicing Christian. (Id. ¶ 15).

         The mindfulness practices consisted of 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, [4] or play with kinetic sand.” (Id. ¶ 20). In July 2015, Plaintiff became a licensed reiki practitioner[5] and opened a side business offering reiki services to the public. (Id. ¶¶ 25-26). She alleges 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 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 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 2015-16 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. (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 that Plaintiff was a Buddhist, [6] and was attempting to indoctrinate their children with Buddhism. (Id. ¶ 30). Plaintiff was also allegedly 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 further accused of attempting to indoctrinate children into Buddhism by reading the book “Peaceful Piggy Meditation, ” which was written by a Jewish author and apparently 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 “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).

         Several members of CCSD's administration initially 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, Patrice Moore, held a meeting-open to all parents-to explain mindfulness and to answer questions. (Id. ¶ 38). Sometime 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 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 allegedly a lower-performing school and offers fewer academics, sports, and extra-curricular activities than Bullard Elementary. (Id. ¶ 49).

         B. Procedural History

         On April 18, 2017, Plaintiff filed her Original Complaint. ([1]). On May 11, 2017, Defendants filed their Initial Motion to Dismiss.[7] On May 25, 2017, Plaintiff filed her Amended Complaint ([11]). In it, 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). Plaintiff also asserts claims against CCSD and Ragsdale under the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, as enforced through 42 U.S.C. § 1983, (Count III and IV, respectively). ([11] ¶¶ 1, 51-78).

         On June 8, 2017, Defendants filed their second Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Defendants argue (1) Plaintiff's religious discrimination claim fails because Title VII does not permit claims based on a “perceived” protected class; (2) Plaintiff's retaliation claim fails because it does not allege or oppose an employment practice made unlawful by Title VII, and thus it cannot constitute the type of protected activity necessary to support a retaliation claim; (3) Plaintiff's Free Exercise claim fails because her activities-exercise and breathing techniques-are not religious in nature, and thus Plaintiff cannot state a claim that Defendants interfered with her right to exercise the religion of her choice; and (4) Plaintiff's Establishment Clause claim fails because she does not “identify any action or policy of Defendants which interfered with her religion.” ([14.1] at 2-4).

         On December 6, 2017, the Magistrate Judge issued his Non-Final R&R. The Magistrate Judge first concluded that Plaintiff's Title VII “reverse religious discrimination” claim is sufficiently pled because (1) recently decided persuasive authority indicates that an employer's motive or intent to discriminate implicates Title VII liability even if Plaintiff is asserting her claim as a member of a “perceived” protected class and (2) Plaintiff has pled facts sufficient to support discrimination based on non-conforming religious beliefs because she states that she was subject to an adverse employment action as the result of “false allegations that she held ‘unacceptable' religious beliefs, including Buddhism, and because her Yoga and Reiki practices were considered offensive to the religious faiths of CCSD board members, including Defendant Ragsdale.” ([20] at 18-30). The Magistrate Judge further found Plaintiff's retaliation claim should survive because Plaintiff in fact alleges that she made a request for support from CCSD district leadership in the face of community members' threats regarding her job. (Id. at 34).

         The Magistrate Judge also found that Plaintiff failed to sufficiently plead her Free Exercise Clause claim because the practices at issue, by Plaintiff's admission, did not constitute religious activity or reflect her sincerely held religious beliefs. (Id. a 41). The Magistrate Judge found that he could not grant Defendants' Motion to Dismiss with respect to Plaintiff's Establishment Clause claim because Defendants failed to advance sufficient arguments or authority explaining why the claim is not properly pled. (Id. at 43-44). With regard to liability, the Magistrate Judge found that Plaintiff's allegations, taken as true and construed in the light most favorable to her, are sufficient to state a plausible allegation that the majority of the CCSD board voted to transfer her based on perceptions that she did not conform to the community's Christian values. The Magistrate Judge found finally that Plaintiff failed to meet her burden to show that Ragsdale was not entitled to qualified immunity, and thus recommended dismissing him from the action. ([20] at 54).

         On December 20, 2017, Defendant CCSD filed its Objections to the Non-Final R&R. CCSD first argues that Title VII “does not by its plain language protect against perceived discrimination, ” that courts in this District have held that a plaintiff cannot bring a “perceived as” claim under Title VII, and that, since “[t]his Court is not a legislature, ” the Court should reject the Magistrate Judge's recommendation “improper[ly] expan[ding] [] Title VII beyond any current binding authority.” ([22] at 2-22). CCSD next argues the Magistrate Judge wrongly concluded that Plaintiff in fact engaged in protected activity-thus sufficiently pleading a retaliation claim. ([22] at 5-7). CCSD states that Title VII protects against employees “opposing” unlawful employment practices, and that, here, Plaintiff's request to be defended against community members' complaints is not opposition to an unlawful employment practice. (Id.).

         CCSD further argues that because Establishment Clause cases are not decided by bright-line rules, but on a case-by-case basis, “it is not surprising that Defendants were unable to locate any case directly on point with the facts at hand.” ([22] at 8). CCSD argues that, even if Plaintiff alleged facts sufficient to make out an Establishment Clause claim, she has failed to show municipal liability. That is, Plaintiff has “failed to allege facts to suggest that any Board Member (much less a majority of the members) acted on any of the community member's complaints or that a majority of the Board Members otherwise acted in a manner that violated the Establishment Clause.” (Id. at 11). CCSD does not otherwise object to the Non-Final R&R.


         A. Review of a Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation

         After conducting a careful and complete review of the findings and recommendations, a district judge may accept, reject, or modify a magistrate judge's report and recommendation. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Williams v. Wainwright, 681 F.2d 732, 732 (11th Cir. 1982) (per curiam). A district judge “shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see also Jeffrey S. by Ernest S v. State Bd. of Educ. Of State of Ga., 896 F.2d 507, 512, 513 (11th Cir. 1990).

         B. Standard on a Motion to Dismiss

         On a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Court must “assume that the factual allegations in the complaint are true and give the plaintiff[] the benefit of reasonable factual inferences.” Wooten v. Quicken Loans, Inc., 626 F.3d 1187, 1196 (11th Cir. 2010). Although reasonable inferences are made in the plaintiff's favor, “‘unwarranted deductions of fact' are not admitted as true.” Aldana v. Del Monte Fresh Produce, N.A., 416 F.3d 1242, 1248 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist. v. Montalvo, 84 F.3d 402, 408 n.10 (11th Cir. 1996)). Similarly, the Court is not required to accept conclusory allegations and legal conclusions as true. See Am. Dental Ass'n v. Cigna Corp., 605 F.3d 1283, 1290 (11th Cir. 2010) (construing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007)).

         “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). Mere “labels and conclusions” are insufficient. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). This requires more than the “mere possibility of misconduct.” Am. Dental, 605 F.3d at 1290 (quoting Iqba ...

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