Protesting Students Were Not Prevailing Parties, Court Rules

By Mark Walsh — April 01, 2009 2 min read
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When is an apparent legal victory for protesting students not really a victory? When their lawyers fail to win an award of attorneys’ fees.

A federal appeals court has ruled that students who challenged their suspension for walking out of school to join a budget protest were not prevailing parties, even though a federal district judge sympathized with them and suggested he would grant the orders and injunction they sought.

The trouble is, the judge never actually issued the temporary restraining order or injunction, the appeals court said.

The case stems from a 2004 incident in which students walked out of Gorton High School in Yonkers, N.Y., to join a protest at Yonkers City Hall against budget cuts to the school system.

The students had been warned not to walk out of school. And the fact that some of the protesters marched back to school and began chanting “Break Out” to their peers inside the high school seemed to upset school administrators. The protestors were classified as Level IV “violent” rulebreakers under the school’s discipline code, and they were suspended for five days.

After two days of the suspension, the students challenged the discipline as a violation of their First Amendment free-speech rights, and they sought court orders to end it. At a hearing the next day, U.S. District Judge Stephen C. Robinson questioned the severity of the punishment and suggested the students had show a likelihood to prevail on their First Amendment claims.

"“So I’m going to grant the temporary restraining order,” Judge Robinson said at the hearing, according to court documents. “And preliminary injunction. I will sign it in a few moments.”

But the judge agreed to give the school district more time to respond, and the orders were never signed. The district did not require the students to serve the rest of the remaining three days, but the Level IV suspensions stayed on students’ records.

In 2006, after the students had graduated, their lawyers sought attorneys’ fees, and Judge Robinson ordered the school district to pay some $10,500 in fees and costs.

The district appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City. In an April 1 ruling in Garcia v. Yonkers School District, a three-judge panel of the court unanimously reversed the award of attorneys’ fees.

The court cited the “ambivalence” of Judge Robinson’s statements at the court hearing.

“On the one hand, the District Court thought that the students’ First Amendment claims were meritorious in light of the disproportionate Level IV
punishment imposed ...,” the appeals court said. “On the other hand, the District Court also noted that it was appropriate for the school district to punish the students for violating the Code of Conduct and, in fact, that the school district may prevail in opposing the injunction if it could show that a Level IV punishment is the ordinary disciplinary action taken against all students who leave school grounds during school hours.”

There is no discussion in the opinion about whether the students’ protest succeeded in staving off the school budget cuts that year.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.