BETTINA LITTELL, as parent and next friend of I.L., a minor; YVONNE BENAVIDES, as parent and next friend of A.B., a minor, Plaintiffs - Appellants
HOUSTON INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant-Appellee
from the United States District Court for the Southern
District of Texas
SMITH, BARKSDALE, and HIGGINSON, Circuit Judges.
STEPHEN A. HIGGINSON, CIRCUIT JUDGE:
a sixth-grade choir class, an assistant principal allegedly
ordered a mass, suspicionless strip search of the underwear
of twenty-two preteen girls. All agree the search violated
the girls' constitutional rights under Texas and federal
law. Even so, the district court dismissed the girls'
lawsuit against the school district for failure to state a
claim. We reverse.
purposes of this appeal, we take as true the amended
complaint's factual allegations. Those allegations
describe how $50 went missing during a sixth-grade choir
class at Houston's public Lanier Middle School. Assistant
Principal Verlinda Higgins was brought in to investigate.
When no money turned up, the school police officer
"suggested that girls like to hide things in their bras
and panties." Higgins took all twenty-two girls in the
choir class to the female school nurse, who strip searched
them, taking them one at a time into a bathroom, where she
"check[ed] around the waistband of [their]
panties," loosened their bras, and checked "under
their shirts." The girls "were made to lift their
shirts so they were exposed from the shoulder to the
waist." No parents were notified, despite the girls'
requests. No money was found.
Houston Independent School District allegedly permits its
school officials to conduct invasive searches of
students' persons-but provides no training as to how to
do so legally. Instead, employees are left to rely on the
school district's written search policy as set forth in
three official school district documents attached to the
first document, labeled "Legal Policy FNF," states
in abstract terms the federal legal standard governing
student searches. See Safford Unified Sch. Dist. No. 1 v.
Redding, 557 U.S. 364, 375 (2009); New Jersey v.
T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 341 (1985). It instructs that
searches must be "reasonable," and that "[a]
search is reasonable if it meets both of the following
1. The action is justified at the inception, i.e., the school
official has reasonable grounds for suspecting that the
search will uncover evidence of a rule violation or a
2.The scope of the search is reasonably related to the
circumstances that justified the search in the first place,
i.e., the measures adopted are reasonably related to the
objectives of the search and are not excessively intrusive in
light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the
Policy FNF also provides citation to the Fourth Amendment of
the U.S. Constitution, New Jersey v. T.L.O., and a
federal district court opinion from 1980 dealing with
dog-sniff searches of cars. The document gives no further
explanation or detail, however, as to what its two criteria
mean, or how teachers and administrators can tell when they
second document, titled "Regulation FNF2," sets
forth certain implementing procedures. This document provides
a simpler-and broader-rule for deciding when a search is
Students and their personal effects are subject to being
searched by school officials, if a school official has
reasonable cause to believe that the student is in possession
of contraband. . . . If a school official has reasonable
cause to believe that contraband is present, he or she may
institute a search.
FNF2 further defines "contraband" as "all
substances or materials, the presence of which are prohibited
by Board policy or state law." And it briefly attempts
to define the legal phrase "reasonable
last relevant document is page four of the Student Code of
Conduct. This document purports to "brief[ly]
descri[be]" the school district's legal policies and
regulations. Its summary of the student-search policy is
School officials are empowered to conduct reasonable searches
of students and school property when there is reasonable
cause to believe that students may be in possession of drugs,
weapons, alcohol, or other materials ("contraband")
in violation of school policy or state law. Students who
bring contraband onto school grounds may be searched . . . .
from inserting the quoted language into these three
documents, the school district allegedly does nothing to
apprise its employees of the standards that govern whether,
when, and how public officials may constitutionally search a
student's person and/or underwear.
wake of the mass strip search in this case, the school's
principal issued a memo admonishing Higgins for
"[r]equesting a search of the students' person[s]
for items other than 'contraband.'" It is
unclear why the principal did not consider stolen money to
qualify as "contraband" under Regulation FNF2
and/or the Student Code of Conduct, given that theft is
"prohibited by . . . state law." Regardless, the
supposed lack of "contraband" appears to have been
the principal's only concern; the memo never criticized
the search for invading the underwear of twenty-two preteen
girls, or for doing so without particularized suspicion.
memo likewise made no mention of Legal Policy FNF or
Regulation FNF2. Instead, it instructed Higgins to
"follow [the school district's] policy and
procedures in the Student Code of Conduct," and to
"revisit page 4 of [that Code] for policy procedures
concerning school officials and reasonable search of
students." The memo further made clear that, at least in
the principal's mind, such strip searches of students are
not per se improper under school district policy.
Rather than forbidding all strip searches going forward, the
memo requested: "In the future, if you feel a student
must have a search requiring a strip search, please notify me
the girls' mothers sued the Houston Independent School
District in federal district court on their daughters'
behalves. They asserted claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983
and the Texas Constitution. As relief, they sought
compensatory damages, as well as an injunction requiring the
school district to clarify its search policy and provide at
least some Fourth Amendment training.
school district moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to
state a claim. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). While
its motion was pending, the school district responded to
Plaintiffs' first set of interrogatories, and in doing so
provided copies of the documents described above.
See Fed. R. Civ. P. 33(d). The district court
subsequently granted the school district's motion and
dismissed the complaint without prejudice.
promptly amended their complaint, this time attaching copies
of the school district's interrogatory responses and the
documents the school district had provided. It was not
enough. The district court granted the school district's
renewed motion to dismiss the action under Rule 12(b)(6),
while denying further leave to amend. This appeal followed.
review a district court's dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6)
de novo, "accepting all well-pleaded facts as true and
viewing those facts in the light most favorable to the
plaintiffs." Doe ex rel. Magee v. Covington Cty.
Sch. Dist. ex rel. Keys, 675 F.3d 849, 854 (5th Cir.
2012) (en banc); see also Leatherman v. Tar-rant Cty.
Narcotics Intelligence & Coordination Unit, 507 U.S.
163, 164 (1993) (no heightened pleading standard for
municipal § 1983 liability). To survive a motion to
dismiss, a complaint need not contain "detailed factual
allegations"; rather, it need only allege facts
sufficient to "state a claim for 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, 555, 570 (2007)). "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." Id. ...