United States District Court, D. Connecticut
ORDER ON MOTIONS FOR JUDGMENT ON THE
R. UNDERHILL, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
LaShawn Robinson, Nichole Burke-Kane, Natalie Delgado, Shara
Ferguson, Marie Joulet, Tynima Toney, Juan Tirado, and
Jahaira Velazquez (“Plaintiffs”), filed suit on
behalf of themselves and their minor children against
Defendants Dianna Wentzell, Commissioner of the Connecticut
State Department of Education; Glen Peterson, Director of the
Sheff and Regional School Choice Office; Allan Taylor,
Chairperson of the Connecticut State Department of
Education's Board of Education; Dannel Malloy,
then-Governor of Connecticut; and George Jepsen,
then-Connecticut Attorney General; (“State
Defendants”), and Craig Stallings, Chairperson of the
Hartford Public Schools Board of Education, all in their
official capacities, alleging that the 75% minority cap on
students attending Hartford magnet schools violates the equal
protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (Count One),
and that the “racial manipulation” of the
Regional School Choice Office (“RSCO”) lottery
violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth
Amendment (Count Two).
seek declaratory judgments that the following policies are
unconstitutional, illegal, invalid, and unenforceable because
of race discrimination in violation of the equal protection
clause: (1) the cap on minority students who may attend
Hartford magnet schools, and (2) the use of race in the RSCO
lottery. They also seek a permanent prohibitory injunction
enjoining State Defendants and Defendant Stallings from
enforcing the cap on black and Hispanic students who may
attend Hartford's magnet schools.
Defendants, Defendant Stallings, and the Intervenors all
filed motions for judgment on the pleadings. For the
following reasons, the State Defendants' motion for
judgment on the pleadings and the Intervenors' motion for
judgment on the pleadings are DENIED.
Defendant Stallings' motion for judgment on the pleadings
is GRANTED, and the case against Defendant
Stallings and the Hartford Board of Education is dismissed
without prejudice. The case shall proceed to discovery
against the following defendants: Dianna Wentzell; Glen
Peterson; Allan Taylor; Ned Lamont; and, William
Standard of Review
standard for granting a Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the
pleadings is identical to that of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion for
failure to state a claim.” Patel v. Contemporary
Classics of Beverly Hills, 259 F.3d 123, 126 (2d Cir.
2001). When deciding a motion to dismiss for failure to state
a claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of
Civil Procedure, I must accept the material facts alleged in
the complaint as true, draw all reasonable inferences in
favor of the plaintiff, and decide whether the plaintiff has
set forth a plausible claim for relief. Ashcroft v.
Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 677-80 (2009); Bell Atl. Corp.
v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007).
Twombly, “[f]actual allegations must be enough
to raise a right to relief above the speculative level,
” and assert a cause of action with enough heft to show
entitlement to relief and “enough facts to state a
claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” 550
U.S. at 555, 570; see also Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679
(“While legal conclusions can provide the framework of
a complaint, they must be supported by factual
allegations.”). The plausibility standard set forth in
Twombly and Iqbal obligates the plaintiff
to “provide the grounds of his entitlement to
relief” through more than “labels and
conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a
cause of action.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555
(quotation marks omitted). Plausibility at the pleading stage
is nonetheless distinct from probability, and “a
well-pleaded complaint may proceed even if it strikes a savvy
judge that actual proof of [the claims] is improbable, and .
. . recovery is very remote and unlikely.” Id.
at 556 (quotation marks omitted).
following facts are drawn primarily from Plaintiffs'
complaint. In 1989, ten families filed a class action in
Hartford Superior Court alleging racial discrimination and
segregation in Connecticut, including in Hartford and its
suburbs. Compl. at ¶ 28. The case, Sheff v.
O'Neill, resulted in a ruling by the Connecticut
Supreme Court requiring the State of Connecticut to provide
all schoolchildren with a “substantially equal
educational opportunity”, including a requirement that
the schools would not be “substantially impaired by
racial and ethnic isolation.” Id. at ¶
29, citing Sheff v. O'Neill, 238 Conn. 1, 24
(1996). The Connecticut Supreme Court remanded the case to
the Superior Court to oversee the enactment of remedial
programs to address the issue of racial and ethnic isolation
in the Hartford schools. Id.
result of the Sheff decision, the Connecticut
Legislature passed Public Act 97-290, which adopted many of
the recommendations contained in a report issued by Governor
John Rowland's Education Improvement Panel, including
interdistrict magnet and charter schools and public school
choice programs beyond neighborhood schools. Id. at
¶¶ 28-29. The program replaced a voluntary busing
system that had been operating since 1966. Id. at
¶ 32. The Regional School Choice Office (RSCO) was
created to operate and conduct a lottery process to place
children in magnet schools and other public schools.
Id. at ¶ 33.
1998, the Sheff plaintiffs requested additional
remedial action. Id. at ¶ 34. Negotiations led
to a process by which reducing racial isolation would be
measured for a period of four years. Id. at
¶¶ 36-38. After that period, and after the City of
Hartford intervened in the case, another stipulation was
reached in 2008, which included a “Desegregation
Standard” that required “Sheff
Region” interdistrict magnet schools to maintain
no more than 75% minority-student enrollment in order to
receive operating grants from the State of Connecticut.
Id. at ¶¶ 38-39. That stipulation also put
forth a goal that 41% of minority students would be in
“reduced isolation settings” within five years.
The Desegregation Standard was later incorporated into the
definition of “reduced isolation setting” and was
altered to exclude all minorities except for black and
Hispanic students. The current stipulation includes the
requirement of a total school enrollment in accordance with
the reduced isolation setting standards for interdistrict
magnet school programs, meaning that the total percentage of
enrolled students who identify as black or Hispanic must be
limited to no more than 75% of students in a magnet school.
Id. at ¶ 42, 46.
determine which magnet school a student may attend, RSCO
operates a school choice lottery. Id. at ¶ 50.
Plaintiffs allege that the RSCO lottery “uses race to
carefully engineer the racial makeup of magnet schools in
Hartford” and that state and local officials
“test and tweak the lottery in order to tip the scales
in favor of white and Asian applicants.” Id.
at ¶ 55-60.
filed the complaint on February 15, 2018 (Doc. No. 1). State
Defendants filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings, or
in the alternative, motion for summary judgment, on April 27,
2018 (Doc. No. 34). On May 8, 2018, eight current and
proposed plaintiffs in the Sheff litigation,
Elizabeth Horton Sheff, Aldwin Allen, Suzann Beckett, Charles
Hollis, Sandra Vermont-Hollis, Tyasha Adams Roberts, Amanda
Soto, and Nordia Stone (“Intervenors”) filed a
motion to intervene on their own behalves and/or on behalf of
their minor children (Doc. No. 35). I held a status
conference on May 10, 2018, and granted the motion to
intervene on that date. Defendant Stallings, Chairperson of
the Hartford Board of Education, moved separately for
judgment on the pleadings on June 15, 2018 (Doc. No. 56). The
Intervenors also moved for judgment on the pleadings that
same day (Doc. No. 58). Plaintiffs responded on July 13, 2018
(Doc. No. 62). Replies were filed in early August (Doc. Nos.
64, 65, and 67). I scheduled a hearing, which took place on
October 16, 2018 (Do. No. 73).
Defendants argue that their actions regarding the policy at
issue were and are narrowly tailored pursuant to a compelling
state interest. See Doc. No. 34. Defendant Stallings
argues that the complaint against him is “devoid of
allegations pertaining to the Hartford Board's
role” regarding the policy at issue, and that the
complaint fails to state a plausible claim for relief with
regard to Defendant Stallings and the Hartford Board of
Education. See Doc. No. 56. Intervenors argue that I
should abstain from deciding the other motions for judgment
on the pleadings while the state court proceedings in the
Sheff case are pending. See Doc. No. 58.
They argue in the alternative that the State Defendants
should be subject to rational basis review rather than strict
issue of standing was raised by the Intervenors in their
motion for judgment on the pleadings, and I requested
supplemental briefing after the October 16, 2018 hearing
(Doc. No. 72). Intervenors argue that Plaintiffs do not have
standing regarding either claim, and State Defendants argue
that Plaintiffs have standing only to pursue Count One,
challenging the cap on the percentage of minority students
admitted to Hartford charter schools. Plaintiffs contend that
they have standing to pursue both claims.
State Defendants and Defendant Stallings have responded to my
May 10, 2018 order instructing the parties to submit
questions for potential certification to the Supreme Court of
Connecticut (Doc. No. 39).
Intervenors' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings
request that I abstain from deciding Defendants' motions
for judgment on the pleadings while the state court
proceedings in Sheff are pending. Intervenors'
Motion, Doc. No. 58-1, at 13. They rely on the
Pullman abstention doctrine for support. Plaintiffs,
however, argue that Pullman abstention is
inappropriate here. Plaintiffs' Combined Response, Doc.
No. 62, at 30.
the Pullman abstention doctrine, the Supreme Court
has “required deferral, causing a federal court to
‘sta[y] its hands,' when a constitutional issue in
[a] federal action will be mooted or presented in a different
posture following conclusion of [a] state-court case.”
Growe v. Emison, 507 U.S. 25, 32 (1993). The Second
Circuit has held that three basic conditions must be present
to trigger Pullman abstention: “First, the
state statute must be unclear or the issue of state law
uncertain; second, resolution of the federal issue must
depend upon the interpretation given to the ambiguous state
provision; and third, the state law must be susceptible of an
interpretation that would avoid or modify the federal
constitutional issue.” United Fence & Guard
Rail Corp. v. Cuomo, 878 F.2d 588, 594 (2d Cir. 1989).
contend that the issue whether the reduced isolation standard
is an appropriate remedy in Sheff is currently
before the Connecticut Superior Court. Intervenors'
Motion, Doc. No. 58-1, at 14 (citing Exhibit J to
Intervenor's Motion, Doc. No, 58-12, Superior Court
Order). Intervenors argue that the “Sheff
plaintiffs' recent motion for a preliminary injunction
was the first time in which any Connecticut court was asked
to expound on the propriety of the reduced isolation
standard. The [S]uperior [C]ourt's rejection of the State
Defendant's premature invitation to rule on these issues
before the evidentiary hearing makes it evident that issues
of state law remain uncertain.”
argue that the current law regarding the requirement for
reduced isolation is unambiguous, and that an argument that
an issue might become ambiguous sometime in the future is not
enough to warrant abstention. Plaintiffs' Combined
Response, Doc. No. 62, at 32. Plaintiffs also argue that
because the Superior Court has approved ...