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Cyr v. Addison Rutland Supervisory Union

United States District Court, D. Vermont

September 30, 2014

MARCEL CYR, Plaintiff,

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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For Marcel Cyr, Plaintiff: Dan Barrett, American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, Montpelier, VT; Edwin L. Hobson, Jr., Burlington, VT.

For Addison Rutland Supervisory Union, Defendant: Pietro J. Lynn, Esq., Lynn, Lynn & Blackman, P.C., Burlington, VT.

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(Docs. 48, 49)

Honorable J. Garvan Murtha, United States District Judge.

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Marcel Cyr brings this civil rights action against the Addison Rutland Supervisory Union (" ARSU" or " Union" ). Mr. Cyr, whose children attended the Benson Village School(" Benson school" ) in the ARSU, alleges violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments based on the Union's issuance of two notices against trespass prohibiting him from entering onto Union property. Specifically, Mr. Cyr claims that the ARSU violated his First Amendment right of access to school board meetings, his First Amendment right to free expression, and his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process.

Both parties have moved for summary judgment. (Docs. 48, 49.) For the reasons below, Plaintiff's motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. Mr. Cyr's motion is granted as to his First Amendment freedom of expression claim and his related Fourteenth Amendment due process claim. Mr. Cyr's motion is denied as to his First Amendment right of access claim, and summary judgment is entered against Mr. Cyr on this claim. Defendant's motion is DENIED.

II. Factual Background[1]

Mr. Cyr and his wife, Veronica, lived with their two children in Benson, Vermont, from 2005 to 2012. While in Benson, the Cyrs' son was diagnosed with a disorder on the autism spectrum. The Cyrs often raised concerns about their son's education and other issues related to the school, and Mr. Cyr testified that as many as 5,000 documents have gone back and forth between the Cyrs and the school regarding their criticisms. They displayed signs on the family car and handed out flyers advocating their views. The Cyrs have also previously filed several administrative complaints against the ARSU and Benson school.

Mr. Cyr is a physically large man and contends he has hearing loss from operating heavy machinery, which causes him to

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speak loudly and makes following some conversations difficult for him. (Doc. 48 ¶ ¶ 2-5.) He has never sought treatment for hearing loss. (Doc. 53-6 ¶ 44.) Some Benson school staff -- including Director of Special Services Kristin Benway and Principal Kim Doty -- were intimidated by Mr. Cyr, who personally delivered his letters to the school on nearly a daily basis. (Doc. 48 ¶ ¶ 40, 42.) Benway testified that at some meetings between Mr. Cyr and school staff about the Cyrs' son, Mr. Cyr leaned over and spoke loudly with a clenched fist. (Doc. 53-6 ¶ 11.) The teacher of the Cyrs' son reported to Principal Doty that she was intimidated after once seeing Mr. Cyr drive by her house in New York.[2] (Docs. 48 ¶ 45; 54-1 ¶ 45.)

The Cyrs attended several Benson school board meetings, which occur monthly in the library or gymnasium. (Doc. 48 ¶ ¶ 7-8.) After a sign they had placed outside of one meeting was knocked down, the Cyrs sometimes waited in their car and watched to make sure it did not happen again. Benson school staff and board members felt threatened when the Cyrs parked near school property and watched them leave meetings. (Doc. 54-1 ¶ 46.)

In August 2011, the Cyrs' son told a therapist he wanted to attack Principal Doty with an ax. (Docs. 48 ¶ 44; 53-6 ¶ 12; 54-1 ¶ 44.) Doty was scared because she believed he was repeating his father's words. She learned about the comments after the boy's therapist contacted the school under what the therapist believed was her " duty to warn." (Doc. 54-1 ¶ 44.) A few days later, the Cyrs contacted Doty to arrange a time to see their son's classroom before the commencement of the school year. Doty testified that the Cyrs " relentlessly" demanded to visit two days before school started, but she told Mr. Cyr they would have to wait until the day before school started. (Docs. 53-6 ¶ 14; 54-1 ¶ ¶ 65-66.) Two days before school commenced, the Cyr family, on the way out of town to go camping, drove by the school at approximately 5:00 p.m. (Doc. 54-1 ¶ 68.) Mr. Cyr drove through the circular driveway, honked, and the family waved.[3] Principal Doty and school counselor Kristin Morrison were the only ones in the school at the time, and Doty found Mr. Cyr's action threatening in light of his repeated demands to visit that day and his son's recent comments to the therapist (which Doty attributed to Mr. Cyr). She told ARSU Superintendent Ron Ryan about the incident and then contacted Fair Haven Police Chief William Humphries for advice. Humphries made her aware that issuing a notice against trespass was an option, and after consultation with Superintendent Ryan, Doty issued a notice against trespass to Mr. Cyr. The notice was served on September 6, 2011. The parties dispute whether Doty needed Ryan's permission to issue the notice, but they do not dispute that Superintendent Ryan agreed with Principal Doty's decision to issue the notice. (Docs. 48 ¶ ¶ 73, 80; 54-1 ¶ ¶ 73, 80) The notice barred Mr. Cyr from all property owned by the ARSU for two years, the amount of time pre-printed on the notice. The parties dispute whether

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Mr. Cyr was given a reason for the issuance of the notice or told how to contest it. (Docs. 48 ¶ 87; 54-1 ¶ ¶ 78, 87.)

Because of the notice against trespass, Mr. Cyr could not attend the September Benson school board meeting. His wife attended instead and asked why her husband was banned from the meeting. The parties dispute whether Principal Doty shrugged and told Mrs. Cyr they did not need a reason to issue a notice. (Docs. 48 ¶ 89; 54-1 ¶ 89.) According to the board meeting minutes, a parent asked if Mr. Cyr was a threat to children and Superintendent Ryan apparently said, " we can't comment at this point, but if there was a threat to the student population you would be notified." (Docs. 48 ¶ 90; 54-1 ¶ 90.)

Doty withdrew the notice against trespass on September 28, 2011. (Doc. 48-19 at 2.) The ARSU contends the notice was withdrawn after the school worked out a " new communication plan" with the Cyrs in consultation with Vermont Legal Aid and the Disability Law Project. (Doc. 54-1 ¶ ¶ 87, 92.) According to the ARSU, Disability Law Project paralegal Sherrie Brunelle agreed to act as a buffer between the Cyrs and the school, and meetings were moved to the ARSU's offices so Doty could attend via phone to avoid meeting with Mr. Cyr in person. (Doc. 49-2 ¶ 19.) Mr. Cyr, on the other hand, contends that Vermont Legal Aid and the Disability Law Project represented only his son, not him or his wife, and testified he did not know anything about the Union's arrangement with those organizations concerning the notice against trespass. (Doc. 53-6 ¶ 19.)

In February and March 2012, the Cyrs -- through counsel at Vermont Legal Aid and the Disability Law Project -- agreed to have Dr. Nancy Cotton, a psychologist, evaluate their son as part of an effort to reintegrate him into the Benson school. On March 15, 2012, Dr. Cotton met with school staff. She had previously reviewed the school's records of its communications with Mr. Cyr, along with other correspondence and staff notes. (Docs. 48 ¶ 96; 54-1 ¶ 96.) After the meeting, Dr. Cotton asked to speak with Principal Doty and Director of Special Services Kristin Benway regarding her concerns about Mr. Cyr's mental status and the potential risk he presented to school staff. Although she had not planned on forming a clinical opinion about him, Dr. Cotton developed concerns about Mr. Cyr after reviewing records and interviewing staff. (Doc. 54-1 ¶ 106.) She had intended to interview Mr. and Mrs. Cyr as well, but after becoming concerned for her own safety, Dr. Cotton decided not to meet with the Cyrs at their home or her office and would only meet at their lawyer's office with the lawyer present. (Doc. 54-1 ¶ 110.) The Cyrs ultimately canceled the interview.

When Dr. Cotton learned the Cyrs had declined to participate in an interview, she told Director Benway to be concerned about Mr. Cyr's " escalating pattern of behaviors." Benway then told Dr. Cotton about a web site on which the screen name " Parents for Change" had posted the following:

When dealing with snakes, you must expect them to twist and turn in an attempt to bite you, any way they can. The teachers will do anything to force there [sic] will on the taxpayer. Up to and including taking it out on the Kids. [T]he best way to deal with a snake is to remove the head. " If they strike fire them."

Mr. Cyr had previously posted comments online using the " Parents for Change" screen name, and Director Benway associated Mr. Cyr with the screen name because of the printed flyers that Mr. and Mrs. Cyr distributed. (Doc. 53-6 ¶ 29.) The posting was related to an article about

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teacher contract negotiations. The parties dispute whether Mr. or Mrs. Cyr authored the online posting.(Docs. 48 ¶ 116; 54-1 ¶ 116.)

Dr. Cotton thought the online comment was " a serious threat in the context of dehumanizing people by comparing them to animals[,] which can further justify violence." (Doc. 49-1 at 4.) Based on her previous concerns in reviewing school records and speaking with staff, as well as the online posting, Dr. Cotton believed she had a professional obligation to warn the school that Mr. Cyr might pose a danger to it. See id. The ARSU did not ask Dr. Cotton to provide such a warning, but requested she put it in writing in order to make clear it was her opinion rather than one of the Benson school. Dr. Cotton's letter recommended the Union " require an independent mental health risk assessment to be conducted to assess Mr. Cyr's mental status, including his thinking processes, potential for violent actions, and ability to participate in the necessary school/home collaboration required with a student with a developmental disorder requiring individualized educational planning." Id. at 3.

On March 26, 2012, Superintendent Ryan issued a second notice against trespass to Mr. Cyr based on Dr. Cotton's letter and consultation with Director Benway and Principal Doty. The notice again barred Mr. Cyr from all ARSU property for two years, which was the period of time pre-printed on the Fairhaven police form. (Docs. 48 ¶ 128; 54-1 ¶ 128.) After issuing the notice, the Union told Mr. Cyr it would reconsider if he underwent a mental health risk assessment as recommended by Dr. Cotton. (Doc. 53-6 ¶ 39.) The Union also offered Mr. Cyr the ability to attend school board meetings via telephone or through the use of various " assistive technologies." (Doc. 53-6 ¶ 41.) Mr. Cyr declined this offer and contends he did not know what the technologies were and did not have access to them. (Doc. 53-6 ¶ 43.) The parties dispute whether the assistive technologies would have allowed Mr. Cyr to effectively participate due to Mr. Cyr's alleged hearing problem and the acoustics of the rooms in which the board meetings were held. (Docs. 49-2 ¶ 43; 53-6 ¶ 43.) Mr. Cyr did not attend several board meetings, which are held on school property, due to the notice against trespass. (Docs. 48 ¶ ¶ 88, 142-43; 54-1 ¶ ¶ 88, 142-43.)

The ARSU board has approximately sixteen members, including five members who also sit on the Benson school board. (Doc. 48-16, 6:1-7.) The record reflects that Principal Doty and Superintendent Ryan made the Benson school board aware of both the September 2011 and the March 2012 notices against trespass after the notices had been issued.[4] The record also

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indicates Superintendent Ryan did not explain to the full ARSU board how or why he issues notices against trespass, and although Superintendent Ryan warned the ARSU board that Mr. Cyr might contact them he did not explain to the full board the basis on which he issued the notices. (Doc. 48-16,16:22-19:5.) On April 12, 2012, after Superintendent Ryan had issued the March 2012 notice and Mr. Cyr had sought access to Dr. Cotton's letter, the ARSU sought a state court declaratory judgment as to whether it could produce the letter. (Docs. 48 ¶ 144; 54-1 ¶ 144.) After the state court dismissed the ARSU's action (Doc. 11-1), the ARSU produced Dr. Cotton's letter.

III. Discussion

A. Standard of Review

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), a court must " grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). " [T]he district court must draw all factual inferences in favor of, and take all factual assertions in the light most favorable to, the party opposing summary judgment." Coollick v. Hughes,699 F.3d 211, 219 (2d Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). The moving party " always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion," Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986), but " [w]here the moving party meets that burden, the opposing party must come forward with specific evidence demonstrating the existence of a genuine dispute of material fact." FDIC v. Great Am. Ins. Co., 607 F.3d 288, 292 (2d Cir. 2010). " Where both parties have moved for summary judgment, 'the court must evaluate each party's motion on its own merits, taking care in each instance to draw all ...

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