Lewis v. Ascension Parish Sch. Bd., No. 09-3971 (5th Cir. Nov. 3, 2011)
Abstract: In a 2-1 split, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has ruled that an African-American parent stated a valid equal protection claim against a Louisiana school district. The parent claims that the district’s student assignment plan assigns a disproportionate number of “at risk” students to predominantly minority schools in the district, thereby discriminating against minority students based on their race. The panel found that the parent lacked standing to bring the suit on behalf of one of his children, however, and that his claim based on the school district’s 2002 modification of its school feeder plan was time-barred by the one-year statute of limitations applicable to § 1983 claims in Louisiana.
The panel’s majority agreed with the district court that because the student assignment plan “is ‘race-neutral’ on its face, the critical questions are (1) whether the school board intended to discriminate racially and (2) whether the plan had racially disparate effects.” However, it took exception with the lower court’s conclusion that the plan was not subject to strict scrutiny analysis because the plan “does not explicitly employ racial classifications,” as it assigns students to schools based on their “geographical location.”
The majority found the analysis flawed on two counts: (1) it was unclear, based on the record, how the district court arrived at a factual finding as a matter of law regarding the school district’s lack of discriminatory purpose; and (2) the “court’s assumption that it might be justifiable to use racially-based decisions for the benign purpose of maintaining post-unitary racial balance among the schools in the system is at least in tension with the Supreme Court’s decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 551 US 701 (2007).” It concluded that the evidence raised a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the school district acted with a racially discriminatory motive.
The majority also found that there were material questions as to whether the plan should be subject to strict scrutiny because the evidence supported the parent’s contention that the plan had a discriminatory effect. Because the facts raised questions as to whether the plan had both a racially discriminatory motive and a disparate impact, along with the district court’s failure to assign the proper significance to the evidence, the majority concluded that the lower court had erred in granting the school district summary judgment under the rational basis test.
Facts/Issues: After Ascension Parish School District (APSD) was released from a longstanding federal court desegregation order and declared unitary, i.e. “all vestiges of the prior compulsory dual school system had been eliminated to the extent practicable,” it faced overcrowding at one of its middle schools. The district developed a student assignment plan to relieve the overcrowding and to maintain APSD’s unitary status. The plan adopted by the school board maintained the racial balance existing at the time APSD had been declared unitary, but resulted in a disproportionate number of “at risk” students being assigned to predominantly minority schools.
Darrin Lewis filed suit on behalf of his two children against APSD in state court, alleging that minority students are being discriminated against based upon their race by a disproportionate influx of at-risk students into their schools. APSD removed the suit to federal district court and moved for summary judgment. The district court adopted the magistrate judge’s Report and Recommendation, granting the motion.
The district court held that Lewis lacked standing to bring suit on behalf of one of the children, and that his claims based on the modification of APSD’s feeder plan were time-barred by the statute of limitations. The district court declined to to apply strict scrutiny analysis to Lewis’ equal protection claim based the student assignment plan. Instead, it found that the plan was facially race-neutral, and that Lewis had not presented competent evidence of discriminatory motive by APSD or disparate impact resulting from the plan. Therefore, employing a rational basis analysis, the court upheld the student assignment plan because APSD had a legitimate government interest in alleviating school overcrowding.
Ruling/Rationale: The Fifth Circuit panel, with one judge filing a concurring opinion and the other judge filing an opinion that concurred in part and dissented in part, affirmed the lower court’s decision regarding the issue of standing and the claim based on the feeder plan, but reversed and remanded the case on the equal protection claim. The panel’s majority first stated its understanding of Lewis’ claim, that “minority students in the East Ascension feeder system were denied equal opportunity by the assignment of a disproportionate number of at-risk students to that system.”
The majority also determined that Lewis was contending that the student assignment plan “is automatically subject to strict scrutiny because it employs racial classifications and, alternatively, that he produced sufficient evidence that [APSD] had a discriminatory motive in assigning a disproportionate number of at-risk students to East Ascension, with corresponding evidence of disparate results.” It pointed out that even a race-neutral government action is subject to strict scrutiny if that action has a “disproportionately adverse effect” that “can be traced to a discriminatory purpose.” Applying strict scrutiny, the government has the burden of proving its actions are narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest. On the other hand, in the absence of a discriminatory purpose, the rational basis test is applied.
Agreeing with the district court that the student assignment was race-neutral on its face, the majority stated it would address two issues: (1) whether APSD engaged in intention racially discrimination; and (2) whether the plan had a racial disparate impact. The majority first found it “troubling” that the district court had made a factual finding as a matter of law about the APSD’s lack of discriminatory purpose. It also found the lower court’s “assumption that it might be justifiable to use racially-based decisions for the ‘benign’ purpose of maintaining post-unitary ‘racial balance’ among the schools in the system” flawed because it was “at least in tension with the Supreme Court’s decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1 (citation omitted) (2007).”
Without further review of Parents Involved, the majority concluded that Lewis had raised a triable issue of fact regarding whether APSD had acted with a racially discriminatory motive. It pointed out that “it is unclear how a student assignment plan could calculate the percentage of black students at each school without classifying individual students by race.”
In addition, the majority concluded that there were material questions as to whether strict scrutiny must apply because evidence supported Lewis’s contention that the plan was discriminatory in effect. It found that the “statistics provide some support for Lewis’s contention that [the plan] disproportionately funneled minorities and at-risk students into the East Ascension feeder zone, thereby discriminating against minorities whose educational environments suffer from disadvantages allegedly attributable to high levels of at-risk children.”
The concurring opinion asserted that in addition to the equal protection claim, Lewis appeared to be challenging APSD’s “racial gerrymandering of attendance zones to maintain almost the exact racial balance that prevailed in the schools before the district was declared unitary,” and issue that should also be remanded for trial. The essence of Lewis’s argument, the concurring judge believed, was that APSD had intentionally used racial classifications and engaged in unconstitutional racial balancing.
The concurring judge stressed that the flaw in APSD’s argument, which the lower court adopted, is that maintaining the “racial balance” that existed at the time APSD was declared unitary is not an unconstitutional use of race and should be analyzed under the rational basis standard for equal protections. She contended that such a reason flew in the face of Parents Involved’s holding that a “district’s unitary status conferred no discretion, much less an obligation, on the district to continue to assign individual students based on racial criteria.” The concurring judge stressed that Kennedy’s concurrence in Parents Involved had adopted a “clear statement … that once a school district formerly under a desegregation decree has been declared unitary, ‘[a]ny continued use of race must be justified on some other basis.’”
The dissenting judge found that the majority and concurring opinions’ description of the student assignment plan “as employing explicit racial classifications seem to be geared toward extending the reach of the Supreme Court’s decision (in Parents Involved), to decisions involving the mere awareness of an act’s probable effects on racial demographics.” The dissent also observed that the ”majority and concurring opinions also seem to push for the application of strict scrutiny to student assignment plans merely because decisionmakers show some desire not to upset a school district’s unitary status.” It rejected such reasoning, stating that “if the court were to confine itself to the case before it, the case would not provide an appropriate platform to further either of these ends.” It argued that the only discriminatory intent at issue in this suit, based on the nature of Lewis’s claim, is APSD’s desire to engage in racial discrimination by placing at-risk students in East Ascension and its feeder schools.
The dissent agreed with the majority that the sole issue is whether APSD violated Lewis’s children’s right to equal protection by assigning a disproportionate number of at-risk students to East Ascension and its feeder schools. It agreed with the lower court that because of the racially neutral nature of plan, it was subject to rational basis scrutiny, not the strict scrutiny standard reserve for governments actions involving racial classifications. The dissent contended that “a compilation of demographic information, even racial demographic information, does not by itself suggest a racial classification or a facially race-conscious decision.”
The dissent concluded that the evidence relied on by the majority in finding a racially discriminatory motive failed to address the question of “whether [APSD] acted with an intent to discriminate through the disproportionate placement of at-risk students in schools attended predominantly by minorities.” As a result, the dissent declined to apply strict scrutiny and, instead, applied the rational basis test. Based on a rational basis review, the dissent, like the lower court, determined that Lewis’s equal protection claim failed. It also found the “majority’s attempt to relate the instant case to Parents Involved is troubling for several reasons.” For example, “any claims Lewis may have had related to assigning students to schools based on race are not before us.” It also noted that “the holding in Parents Involved pertained only to plans that expressly use race to determine which school a student will attend and thus does not speak to the matter before us.”
Lewis v. Ascension Parish Sch. Bd., No. 09-3971 (5th Cir. Nov. 3, 2011)
[Editor's Note: Based on the reasoning employed by both the majority and the concurring opinions, the use of demographics that include racial composition will leave school district student assignment plans susceptible to being found unconstitutional under Parents Involved. In June 2010 Legal Clips summarized a Pennsylvania federal district court's decision in Student Doe 1 v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist. holding that a school district’s use of racial demographics to redraw the attendance zones for its two high schools did not violate African-American students’ rights under section 1981, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The court concluded that the redistricting plan, which took away the ability of students who live in the area of the school district with the highest concentration of African-American students to attend the high school of their choice, did not discriminate on the basis of race in violation of either the Equal Protection Clause, section 1981 or Title VI.]