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Longoria v. San Benito Independent Consolidated School District

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

November 4, 2019

ZULEMA LONGORIA, As Next Friend of M.L., Plaintiff - Appellant Cross-Appellee

          Appeals from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas

          Before KING, HIGGINSON, and DUNCAN, Circuit Judges.

          STEPHEN A. HIGGINSON, Circuit Judge.

         A few weeks after she was selected to be the head varsity cheerleader at San Benito High School, M.L., a minor, was stripped of her position and dismissed from the team when her cheerleading coaches discovered a series of posts on her personal Twitter account containing profanity and sexual innuendo. M.L.'s mother, Zulema Longoria, filed this lawsuit on behalf of her daughter under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. She argues that the actions of the school district, its superintendent, the high school principal, and the cheerleading coaches violated M.L.'s rights to free speech, due process, and equal protection. After the defendants moved for dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the district court held that the individual defendants were entitled to qualified immunity and dismissed M.L.'s complaint for failure to state a claim.

         Because we agree that no clearly-established law placed the constitutionality of defendants' conduct "beyond debate" at the time of M.L.'s dismissal from the team, Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 741 (2011), we affirm the district court's qualified-immunity holding. We likewise affirm the district court's dismissal of M.L.'s claims for municipal liability, vagueness, and overbreadth because M.L. failed to plead facts that would entitle her to relief.


         M.L. joined the varsity cheerleading team during her sophomore year at San Benito High School. In March 2017, she became the head varsity cheerleader of the team, a position she was supposed to hold for the remainder of that year and the following school year. As part of her participation on the team, M.L. and her mother were both required to sign the San Benito High School Cheerleading Constitution ("the Cheerleading Constitution"). Section 5.12 of the Cheerleading Constitution requires cheerleaders to maintain "appropriate" conduct on their personal social-media accounts.

         Shortly after she was named head cheerleader, M.L. and her mother were called into a meeting with Ashley Camacho-Garza and Velma Garcia, the two coaches of the cheerleading team. When they arrived, they were given a letter explaining that M.L. was being dismissed from the team because she had accumulated a number of demerits for posting material on her Twitter account in violation of the Cheerleading Constitution.[1] M.L. alleges that this was the first time she was informed that the coaches were concerned about her social-media activity, and she received no prior notice about the demerits.

         Eight of the posts identified by Camacho-Garza and Garcia were third-party messages created by other Twitter users. Using her own account, M.L. "liked" these posts, causing them to be shared with her social-media followers. The relevant posts include the following messages: (1) "Imma show my mom all the snaps[2] from girls partying for spring break so she can appreciate her lame ass daughter some more," (2) a tweet about braiding hair containing the acronym "lmao, "[3] (3) a tweet containing an image of a text-message conversation between a mother and a daughter, in which the word "fuck" is used twice, (4) "I love kissing lmao," (5) "i [sic] don't fuck with people who lowkey try to compete with/ out do me," (6) "I fucking love texas [sic] man, it's so beautiful and just overall great! Why would anyone want to leave Texas[?]," (7) "I love her [third-party Twitter user] I FUCKING LOVE YOU SO MUCH AND YOU DONT [sic] EVEN KNOW IT LIKE BITCH I HOPE YOU DO GREAT SHIT IN LIFE I BELIEVE IN YOU," and (8) a tweet from a Twitter account entitled "Horny Facts'," which states, "bitch don't touch my . . ."[4]

         The record contains two other posts allegedly deemed inappropriate by M.L.'s coaches. One, a third-party tweet that M.L. retweeted on her own account, was initially posted by a Twitter user called "Bitch Code." The second is M.L.'s own tweet responding "Yes" to a third-party user's message asking "Did pope split you in half??"[5] In the biography section at the top of M.L.'s Twitter account, she identified herself as a member of "San Benito Varsity Cheer."

         M.L. and her mother filed a grievance against the coaches' actions with Henry Sanchez, the principal of San Benito High School. They complained that the Cheerleading Constitution was impermissibly vague as to the social-media content that would be considered "inappropriate" and subject to discipline, and they argued that M.L.'s dismissal from the team violated her right to free speech. In April 2017, Sanchez denied the grievance in a written ruling following a hearing. M.L. and her mother met with Dr. Adrian Vega, the superintendent of the San Benito Independent Consolidated School District, to raise their concerns. A few days later, Dr. Vega informed them that Principal Sanchez's ruling was final and would not be reviewed.[6]

         M.L. and Zulema Longoria ("plaintiffs" or "M.L.") filed this lawsuit in the Southern District of Texas against Camacho-Garza, Garcia, Sanchez, Vega, and the school district in August 2017. On July 31, 2018, the magistrate judge issued a report and recommendation recommending dismissal of the complaint in its entirety. Though the magistrate judge's report concluded that the complaint plausibly alleged a violation of M.L.'s First Amendment rights, it found that there was no clearly-established law prohibiting the defendants from dismissing M.L. from the cheerleading team for online profanity and sexual innuendo. It based its conclusion, in part, on two specific facts: "(1) the student and her mother had agreed in writing that her social media page would be subject to the reach of the Cheerleading Constitution, and (2) the biography section of M.L.'s Twitter profile identified her as part of 'San Benito Varsity Cheer.'" As a result, the magistrate judge recommended granting the individual defendants' qualified-immunity defenses. The magistrate judge also recommended dismissing plaintiffs' vagueness and overbreadth claims because these claims were raised for the first time in response to defendants' motion to dismiss, and had not been asserted in the complaint. Finally, the magistrate judge recommended dismissal of the plaintiffs' claim against the school district because the complaint did not adequately plead that the district's Board of Trustees had either adopted the Cheerleading Constitution on its own or delegated policymaking authority to Sanchez.

         The district court adopted the report and recommendation over plaintiffs' objections and granted the defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint. On appeal, M.L. challenges the district court's conclusions that the individual defendants were entitled to qualified immunity and that M.L. failed to state a claim for vagueness, overbreadth, or municipal-liability.[7]


         We "review a district court's grant of a motion to dismiss de novo, applying the same standard applied by the district court." Masel v. Villarreal, 924 F.3d 734, 742-43 (5th Cir. 2019). "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."'" Id. at 743 (quoting Waller v. Hanlon, 922 F.3d 590, 599 (5th Cir. 2019)). In conducting this analysis, we "accept[] all well-pleaded facts as true and view[] 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). Though the complaint need not contain "detailed factual allegations," it must contain sufficient factual material to "allow[] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007)).

         When a defendant asserts a qualified-immunity defense in a motion to dismiss, the court has an "obligation . . . to carefully scrutinize [the complaint] before subjecting public officials to the burdens of broad-reaching discovery." Jacquez v. Procunier, 801 F.2d 789, 791 (5th Cir. 1986); see also Wicks v. Miss. State Emp't Servs., 41 F.3d 991, 995 n.16 (5th Cir. 1995) ("[I]mmunity means more than just immunity from liability; it means immunity from the burdens of defending a suit, including the burdens of pretrial discovery."). A defendant is entitled to qualified immunity if his "conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). "This is not to say that an official action is protected by qualified immunity unless the very act in question has previously been held unlawful, but it is to say that in the light of pre-existing law the unlawfulness must be apparent." Porter v. Ascension Parish Sch. Bd., 393 F.3d 608, 618 (5th Cir. 2004) (quoting Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 (1987)). If, at the time of the events underlying the litigation, "insufficient precedent existed to provide ...

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