Appeals Court withdraws opinion in dispute between parents, Charlotte private school

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  • The state Court of Appeals has withdrawn a Jan. 2 opinion favoring Charlotte Latin School in its legal dispute with parents of two expelled students.
  • Judges split, 2-1, in making the decision to withdraw the opinion. That decision arrived nearly a month after patents Doug and Nicole Turpin asked the full 15-member Appeals Court to reconsider the case.
  • Charlotte Latin argues that the case involves a simple contract dispute. The Turpins allege that the school expelled their children after the parents questioned changes in school operations.

The state Court of Appeals is withdrawing its opinion favoring a Charlotte private school in its dispute with parents of two expelled students. A court order issued Monday offered no explanation for the decision.

“By majority vote, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the opinion filed in this case on 2 January 2024 be withdrawn,” according to the order. “The Clerk of the Court of Appeals is hereby directed not to certify said opinion. This cause is retained by this Court for disposition by the panel to which it is assigned.”

Court Clerk Eugene Soar signed the order. It does not indicate which three Appeals Court judges participated in the decision.

The “majority vote” language shows that a three-judge panel split, 2-1, in making the decision. Appeals Court rules delay the release of names of judges who decide petition requests for 90 days.

Monday’s order arrived almost a month after parents Doug and Nicole Turpin filed paperwork asking the full 15-member Appeals Court to hold an “en banc” hearing to reconsider the Jan. 2 decision favoring Charlotte Latin School. The school filed paperwork opposing a rehearing.

“This case presents a straightforward question: whether a private school may protect its educational autonomy by exercising its contractual right to terminate an enrollment agreement with parents who are irreconcilably opposed to that private school’s mission, core values, and curriculum,” wrote Charlotte Latin’s lawyers in response to the “en banc” hearing request. “In the face of Plaintiffs’ repeated objections to its policies, Charlotte Latin was within its contractual rights to require the parties to go their separate ways.”

“After carefully considering Plaintiffs’ Complaint and settled principles of contract and tort law, a three-judge panel of this Court issued a unanimous, unpublished opinion affirming dismissal of Plaintiffs’ claims. The Court should let the decision of its panel stand and deny Plaintiffs’ motion for rehearing en banc,” the school’s lawyers added.

The Turpins argue that Charlotte Latin School kicked out two Turpin children in September 2021 after the parents questioned changes in the school’s operations. They challenge the three-judge appellate panel’s conclusions.

“To rule against Doug and Nicole Turpin, the panel went far beyond the permissible scope of review, concluding that three contacts between Doug Turpin and Charlotte Latin School, its Board of Trustees, and its administration — all asking questions about the substance of Latin’s curriculum and instruction — amounted to an ‘attack’ on the school,” wrote the Turpins’ lawyers.

“Viewing the facts in the light least favorable to the Turpins, the Court determined that they had ‘continuously assail[ed]’ Latin, daring to ask its administration about classroom policies and procedures,” the motion continued. “The opinion punishes the Turpins for the grave sin of caring about their children’s education, health, and safety.”

“If the panel opinion is allowed to stand, children across our State face retribution,” the Turpins warned. “North Carolina recently expanded its Opportunity Scholarship program, giving every child the ability to attend private school. Our State will experience an influx of children into private schools. Now more than ever, parents need to know that they can contact their children’s private schools to express concerns or ask questions without fear of retaliation.”

The appellate panel’s decision upheld an October 2022 trial court ruling favoring Charlotte Latin. Appellate judges focused on an element of the contractual agreement between the school and its parents. It required a “positive, collaborative working relationship between the School and a student’s parent/guardians.”

“On appeal, plaintiffs contend that they ‘did not make the required “positive, collaborative working relationship” between themselves and Latin “impossible.”’ We disagree,” wrote Judge Carolyn Thompson.

“Here, the allegations of the complaint make clear that a ‘positive, collaborative working relationship between the School’ and plaintiffs was ‘not capable of being accomplished,’” Thompson added “Indeed, the animosity between plaintiffs and defendants can be observed in just the second paragraph of plaintiffs’ complaint, wherein plaintiffs assert that the school’s actions were an example of ‘what has come to be known in American society as “cancel culture.”’

“Moreover, plaintiffs devote an entire section of their complaint titled ‘Latin’s Adoption of a Political Agenda’ to chronicle events that plaintiffs felt were indicative of Latin ‘moving toward a curriculum, culture, and focus associated with a political agenda,’” Thompson wrote “Plaintiffs then devote two additional pages of their complaint to assail Latin’s ‘political agenda’ and note that they ultimately ‘request[ed] the opportunity to meet with the Board … in hopes of beginning a dialogue about the need for better transparency with parents regarding curriculum and the need for consistency with Latin’s Mission and Core Values, as well as Latin’s promise of a traditional and apolitical education.’”

The contract between the school and parents did not allow “plaintiffs to continuously assail the culture and curriculum of the school, with which they no longer agreed,” Thompson explained.

Thompson and fellow Judges John Arrowood and Julee Flood rejected the Turpins’ claims of “breach of contract, fraud, negligent misrepresentation, unfair and deceptive trade practices, negligent infliction of emotional distress, defamation, or negligent retention or supervision.”

As an unpublished opinion, the case would have had limited value as a precedent for future disputes.

The Turpins alleged that Charlotte Latin “hatched a plan” to expel their children after the parents started asking questions about changes in the school’s operations.

The Turpins originally filed suit in April 2022. A trial judge dismissed all but one claim in October 2022. The Turpins later dropped that remaining claim as they pursued their appeal.

“Being a parent isn’t easy. Parents have a right — or, at the very least, a need — to understand what their children are exposed to, whether by their friends, the media, or their teachers,” according to a brief the Turpins’ lawyers filed in August. “This is a case about two parents needing an answer to that question.”

“Yet when they asked, Charlotte Latin School and its administrators, Chuck Baldecchi and Todd Ballaban, shut them down,” the brief continued. “In just over two weeks, the Turpins went from valued community members, invited to speak to Latin’s board of trustees, to pariahs whose children were expelled.”

“Latin expelled the Turpin children …  to make examples out of the Turpin family,” the parents argued. “The Turpins’ valid concerns irked the school’s administration. When Latin’s administrators got the chance, they hatched a plan to expel the Turpins’ children. … [T]his Court should reverse the trial court’s decision dismissing the complaint.”

During oral arguments in October, the lawyer for the Turpins, Chris Edwards, argued that the school unfairly targeted the family for expulsion.

“This is a business, not a public school,” Edwards said. “It may be a nonprofit business, but this is a business, not a public school. So, the Turpins are the school’s consumers, and it has an obligation to deal with them in good faith.”

In contrast, attorney Jennifer Van Zant, representing Charlotte Latin, argued that the school was well within its rights to end its relationship with the family. Van Zant emphasized that, in the school’s view, the students were not “expelled,” but the contract was simply ended.

“The very point of private education — whether it be a religious, classical, progressive, Montessori, experiential — is that schools can set a curriculum and policies and then parents can choose schools that match their personal ideologies,” Van Zant said. “Affirming the trial court’s order will affirm that in North Carolina, a private school may set its own course and may preserve a contractual right to separate from parents who want their children educated differently.”

Previously, the school characterized the suit as a challenge to its “diversity, equity, and inclusion” measures.

The NC Association of Independent Schools and Southern Association of Independent Schools filed briefs with the state’s second-highest court. The two groups supported Charlotte Latin’s case.

In a video interview with Carolina Journal, Turpin said that he and his wife were looking for a classical education for their children. They thought that would be achieved at Charlotte Latin. But the school took a turn toward progressivism after the George Floyd riots in 2020.

“All of a sudden they started sending out all kinds of very puzzling emails that sounded like virtue signaling,” Turpin said. “Then strange things began to appear in the school that were rather alarming to Christian parents like us.”

One of those was a picture hung in the hallway of the school depicting Jesus with his throat cut and black blood coming down his shirt, with the words “God is dead” on the forehead, according to Turpin.

The negative experience inspired Turpin to found a group called the Coalition for Liberty, which seeks to establish new classical model schools that are apolitical, among other objectives.