Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.
Rowan Thompson, a student at Metropolitan State University of Denver, had a classroom dispute with her chemistry professor that ultimately prompted Thompson to drop the class.
Thompson has an eye condition that makes her sensitive to light, requiring her to sit in the first three rows of a classroom to see what is written on the whiteboard. She was enrolled in a chemistry class at MSU Denver taught by Dr. Megan Lazorski. On February 4, 2019, Thompson arrived late to the class. Noting that all the seats in the first three rows were occupied, she sat on the floor in the front row. Lazorski didn’t approve, interrupting her lecture to instruct Thompson to take a seat. Although Thompson informed Lazorski about her eye condition, the professor still insisted that Thompson move to a seat, and she had students leave the front row so that Thompson could sit there.
A week later, Thompson again arrived late to the class. Because all seats in the first three rows were taken, Thompson sat on the floor in the front row, in a space where a desk was missing. Lazorski instructed Thompson to move to a seat. Thompson said she preferred to sit on the floor in the front row because of her eye condition. Lazorski said the only options were to sit at a desk or leave the classroom. Thompson chose to leave class. Thompson ultimately dropped the class because of the seating dispute “and the unlikelihood of it being resolved.”
But when Thompson emailed her former classmates to express her displeasure with the professor and to suggest that her classmates leave “honest” end-of-term evaluations, Thomas Ragland, MSU’s Associate Director for Student Conduct, allegedly prohibited Thompson from further contacting the professor or even discussing the professor with any students taking any of the professor’s classes.
Thompson sued Ragland, arguing he violated her First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim, holding that Ragland had not violated clearly established law and was entitled to qualified immunity.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that because one can infer from the allegations in the complaint that there was no proper justification for Ragland’s actions, the complaint states a violation of clearly established law governing the regulation of student speech. Exercising jurisdiction, the 10th Circuit reversed and remanded for further proceedings.
Jeffrey Simmermaker, a federal prisoner proceeding pro se, appeals the district court’s dismissal of his complaint asserting claims related to his prison’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The operative complaint decries the response by the Federal Correctional Institution in Florence, Colorado to the COVID-19 pandemic, including its alleged failure to follow CDC guidelines for social distancing and its implementation of a policy that allegedly deprives inmates’ access to musical instruments. As a legal basis for redress, the complaint “generally references the First Amendment, and uses language associated with the Eighth and Fifth Amendment doctrines of deliberate indifference, due process and equal protection,” according to the court opinion from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim. It found that the subsections referenced in the complaint don’t create a right of action. The court also found the complaint failed to adequately allege any constitutional violation. The district court dismissed Simmermaker’s First Amendment allegations in part because the complaint didn’t allege Simmermaker “plays a musical instrument, or that his own freedom of expression has been curtailed by the alleged depravation,” and in part because the complaint didn’t allege the prison’s policy limiting access to musical instruments was unrelated to a legitimate penological interest.
The court dismissed Simmermaker’s Eighth Amendment claim because the complaint didn’t allege prison officials knowingly disregarded the risks from COVID-19. The court determined that the complaint also didn’t state a plausible Fifth Amendment due-process violation because it didn’t allege any practice at FCI Florence was atypical in the prison setting. And the court held that the complaint failed to state a cognizable equal-protection claim because it didn’t allege Simmermaker is similarly situated with inmates who have been treated differently.
Simmermaker appealed the district court’s dismissal of his complaint. But the 10th Circuit affirmed for substantially the same reasons given by the district court.