Mark Weiker, Esq., Albeit Weiker, LLP
Over the last two years, Ohio school boards have become a lightning rod for citizens to unload their personal and political thoughts on almost everything pandemic related. From virtual learning to masking to quarantining, school boards have absorbed the diverse and sometimes raucous opinions of their constituents. Outcomes in recent lawsuits suggest that courts are largely unwilling to interfere with the discretion of school boards to make unpopular decisions.
Montgomery County Schools Cases
In September 2021, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio in Dayton dismissed three separate lawsuits brought by pro se parents against three different Montgomery County Schools (Huber Heights City Schools, Mad River Local Schools and Northmont City Schools). The parents each alleged that the schools’ policies requiring masks were a violation of their children’s constitutional rights. The dismissals by the Court were not based on the merits of the claims, but rather on a rule prohibiting parents from filing pro se claims in federal court on behalf of their minor children.[i] The Court held that, “the rule against non-lawyer representation protects the rights of those before the court by preventing an ill-equipped layperson from squandering the rights of the party he purports to represent.”[ii]
Chillicothe City School District Case
On Nov. 1, 2021, four parents filed a lawsuit against the Chillicothe City School District and school administrators alleging that the school’s policy requiring masks was “arbitrary, capricious and based on ignorance due to failure to inquire into facts.”[iii] The parents’ pro se claims brought on behalf of their minor children were dismissed sua sponte by the Court for the same reason as those in the Montgomery County cases, while claims brought by the parents on their own behalf survived. Nonetheless, the parents’ request for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) was denied because the parents “[had] not shown that they [were] likely to succeed on the merits of the remaining claims or that irreparable injury would accrue from denying the motion.”[iv]
In addition to the Chillicothe case, at least two other cases included requests for a TRO by parent-plaintiffs, and the courts denied the requests in both cases.
Mayfield City School District Case
In September 2021, a parent in the Mayfield City School District sought a TRO against the school district because the school board was attempting to institute a mask requirement.[v] The parent argued that the mask mandate caused “immediate and irreparable harm” to students, staff, and the general community.[vi] The parent also alleged that the mandate was a violation of her daughter’s constitutional rights and impeded on her daughter’s fundamental right to a public education.[vii]
The Court denied the motion for TRO because the parent failed to meet the necessary elements, finding that masking did not impede on the student’s ability to attend school. The Court also found that there was likely no chance of irreparable harm to the plaintiff’s daughter or other minors should the mask mandate be allowed to stand.[viii] Notably, the Court identified that, “the mask mandate was implemented to prevent serious injury, illness, and death in the District and broader community…[and] the risks associated with not wearing a mask in public schools are well-documented and supported by scientific evidence.”[ix]
Forest Hills Local School District Case
In another case filed in September, a plaintiff in the Forest Hills Local School District took issue with the meeting in which the school board adopted the mask policy. The plaintiff alleged a violation of the Open Meetings Act[x] and sought a TRO preventing the school board from enforcing the mask requirement.[xi] The Court denied the relator’s request for a TRO after holding a conference with the parties.[xii] After the TRO was denied, the plaintiff filed an affidavit to have the judge disqualified due to the judge’s comments at the conference, but the Ohio Supreme Court determined that the judge was not prejudicial.[xiii]
Hudson City School District Case
A more recent case was filed by three parents in the Summit County Common Pleas Court on Jan. 10 against the Hudson City School District. The parents sought injunctive relief prohibiting the school district from enforcing masking and quarantine rules absent a health department order, among other requests for relief. As of February 7, 2022, no hearing on injunctive relief has been scheduled or held, and no such relief has been ordered by the court, although the case is still pending.
While some case dismissals have been procedural, and others are only denials of immediate injunctive relief, the outcomes to date indicate a reluctance on the part of Ohio courts to disrupt the difficult decisions made by local boards of education—at least when it comes to masks.
[i] See P.G. v. Huber Hts. City Schl Dist., 3:21-cv-257 (S.D. Ohio, Sept. 23, 2021), citing Shepherd v. Wellman, 313 F.3d 963, 970 (6th Cir. 2002).
[ii] Id., citing Bass v. Leatherwood, 788 F.3d 228, 230 (6th Cir. 2015).
[iii] Wettersten v. Chillicothe City Schl. Dist., 2:21-cv-5187 (S.D. Ohio, Nov. 1, 2021).
[v] P.M. v. Mayfield City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., No. 1:21 CV 1711 (N.D. Ohio, Sept. 13, 2021).
[vi] Id. at 2.
[ix] Id. at 4.
[x] Doe v. Forest Hills Loc. Schl. Dist., A-2102899 (Hamilton Cty., Aug. 18, 2021) (documents sealed).
[xi] In Re Disqualification of Jenkins, No. 21-AP-114, ¶¶17-18 (Sep. 22, 2021).
[xiii] Id. at 2.