Charlotte private school rebuts Turpins’ arguments at top NC court

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  • Charlotte Latin School filed a brief Monday at the state Supreme Court defending its 2021 decision to remove two children after a dispute with the children's parents.
  • Doug and Nicole Turpin accuse Charlotte Latin of breaching its contract with the Turpin family after the parents started questioning changes in the school's priorities and philosophy.
  • The school's latest court filing defended independent and religious schools' "freedom to set their own curriculum and policies."

A Charlotte private school is defending its decision to remove two students in 2021 after a dispute with the students’ parents. The defense appeared in a brief filed Monday with North Carolina’s highest court.

Doug and Nicole Turpin accuse Charlotte Latin School of expelling the Turpin children after the parents started questioning changes in the school’s priorities and philosophy. The Turpins have asked the state Supreme Court to take their breach-of-contract lawsuit.

Lower courts have ruled against the Turpins, including a 2-1 decision in April from the state Appeals Court.

“Independent and religious schools are private entities that have the freedom to set their own curriculum and policies,” wrote Charlotte Latin’s lawyers in their latest court filing. “Like other businesses in this state, they are service providers competing in an educational marketplace for customers. Parents may choose where to enroll their children, and they do so through contracts which define the parties’ rights and obligations.”

“In the event parents are dissatisfied with a private school’s curriculum and culture, they have the option to enroll their children at a new school that suits their needs,” the court filing continued. “And, if a private school has parents that reject the school’s policies, it likewise may end their relationship.”

“In several communications with Latin and its leadership, Plaintiffs repeatedly and unequivocally indicated that they opposed Latin’s curriculum and culture, which they considered too ‘political.’ Latin concluded that the parties needed to go their separate ways,” the school’s lawyers explained. “Plaintiffs then took their political dispute to court.”

“Plaintiffs’ Petition continues to advance their political disagreements with Latin’s policies,” according to the brief. “They argue that the three-judge panel on the Court of Appeals acted with ‘animus’ and ‘open hostility’ towards Plaintiffs when it unanimously dismissed Plaintiffs’ extracontractual claims. They also argue that the Court of Appeals ‘relied on motivated reasoning’ and granted private schools ‘special immunity’ from tort liability because the ‘woke indoctrination machine’ does not want thousands of private school parents questioning ‘sacrosanct’ diversity, equity, and inclusion (‘DEI’) programs.”

“But the Court of Appeals’ ruling dismissing Plaintiffs’ statutory and tort claims is no such thing,” Charlotte Latin’s lawyers wrote. “Relying on well-settled and controlling North Carolina law and Plaintiffs’ own allegations, the lower courts simply recognized that the dissolution of Plaintiffs’ relationship with Latin is a contractual matter and did not violate any independent duties imposed by statutory or common law.”

The Turpins’ case attracted attention last week from 14 Republican state lawmakers and election candidates. A friend-of-the-court, or amicus, brief indicated the Republicans “believe that the Turpins’ petition raises issues that are important to all North Carolinians.”

“Should the Court review what law governs the relationship among private schools, their students, and parents?” the court filing asked. “Amici believe that private-school enrollment is increasing already, and may increase substantially more due to funding of the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Private schools, students, and parents would all benefit from understanding what laws govern this relationship.”

“Should the Court review whether any law protects critics of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs?” the court filing continued. “Whatever one’s views are of DEI programs, Amici believe that reprisals against DEI critics can violate a whole host of laws. The Turpins’ petition is a good vehicle to outline some of the protections that the law provides to DEI critics.”

The Turpins are making their second bid for the state Supreme Court to take the case. Their latest appeal followed April’s split 2-1 decision against the parents from the state’s second-highest court.

“[T]he Court of Appeals insulated Latin — and other private schools — from ordinary civil liability,” wrote the Turpins’ lawyers. “Along with other parents, the Turpins questioned Latin’s changing culture, which, over two years, veered away from a neutral, apolitical education and toward an intense focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

“What rights do parents retain? Because they dared question Latin’s agenda, Latin retaliated against the Turpins,” the Supreme Court petition continued. “Rather than treat Latin like any other private market participant, the Court of Appeals essentially determined that Latin was beyond reproach, and it faulted the Turpins for questioning Latin’s new culture.”

“But the Turpins have been clear that they are not challenging Latin’s power to adopt DEI-focused policies, arguing instead that parents shouldn’t be defamed or have their children expelled for simply asking about what their child is learning in class,” the Turpins’ lawyers added. “The court thus deprived the Turpins of their legal rights, preventing thousands of parents from asking questions about their own children’s wellbeing in the process.”

The Appeals Court ruling  “conflicts with” state Supreme Court precedents. “[H]ere the Court of Appeals relied on motivated reasoning to view the facts in the light least favorable to the Turpins,” their lawyers argued. “Because that court read the complaint in an unnatural way to deprive the Turpins of their rights, the Court of Appeals’ failure to abide by the standard of review also warrants review.”

The petition also argued that the case raises two significant legal questions for the high court to address. First, the Appeals Court “muddied the waters about the requirements for successfully pleading a negligent infliction of emotional distress claim.” Second, appellate judges rejected the Turpins’ claim of negligent misrepresentation. “But it did so just because it determined that the Turpins’ relationship with Latin was non-commercial. This issue separately merits review because it makes unclear whether private schools are, or are not, commercial actors.”

The Appeals Court’s April 2 decision marked the second time appellate judges had ruled against the Turpins. Unlike the first unanimous ruling in January, the latest decision split judges, 2-1, and produced three separate opinions.

The Turpins argued that the school violated its contract after the parents raised questions about changes in Charlotte Latin’s focus. The school responded that the Turpins violated provisions of the school’s “parent-school partnership” with ongoing complaints about Charlotte Latin’s operations.

“On appeal, plaintiffs contend that they ‘sufficiently alleged a breach of contract, and the trial court was wrong to conclude otherwise’ because ‘the court ignored the agreement’s plain language and disregarded Latin’s obligation to apply those agreements in good faith.’ We disagree, because the plain and unambiguous language of the enrollment contracts — and pursuant to the enrollment contracts, the Parent-School Partnership — allowed Latin to terminate plaintiffs’ enrollment contracts at Latin’s discretion,” wrote Judge Carolyn Thompson for the court’s majority.

Thompson had written the original decision in the case. The Appeals Court agreed to pull that decision in February, almost a month after the Turpins asked for the full 15-member court to rehear the case.

Judge John Arrowood supported Thompson’s majority opinion but wrote his own concurrence in April.

“I agree that plaintiffs failed to sufficiently allege a breach of contract because the plain and unambiguous language in the enrollment contracts, which state that ‘the School reserves the right to discontinue enrollment if it concludes that the actions of a parent/guardian make such a relationship impossible or seriously interfere with the School’s mission[,]’ allowed the school to terminate plaintiffs’ 2021 enrollment contracts at its discretion,” Arrowood wrote. “Because I believe that allowing this case, in its current state, to advance further would severely undermine the fundamental right to freely contract in North Carolina, which is a bedrock principle of North Carolina law, I write separately to highlight those concerns.”

“North Carolina ‘recognizes that, unless contrary to public policy or prohibited by statute, freedom of contract is a fundamental constitutional right,’” Arrowood explained. “Thus, absent such policies or prohibitive statutes, it is beyond question that parties can contract as they see fit and that courts must enforce those contracts as written to preserve that fundamental right.

“In my view, these enrollment contracts between a private school and those who wish to attend that school do not violate any public policy, statutory prohibitions, or protections,” the concurring opinion continued. “Therefore, this is a case of basic contract interpretation.”

Thompson and Arrowood are Democrats. Judge Julee Flood, a Republican, dissented from the ruling favoring Charlotte Latin.

“The line between the right to terminate a private contract and a contract breach is sometimes mercurial,” Flood wrote. “While the majority would draw that line at the point at which Plaintiffs were accused of certain behaviors in violation of provisions of their private school enrollment contracts, I conclude that the mandates of a Rule 12(b)(6) review are such that we must decline to draw that line prematurely.”

Rule 12(b)(6) involves testing the legal sufficiency of a complaint.

“Treating the allegations in Plaintiffs’ Complaint as true, and viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, Plaintiffs made such allegations that they sufficiently stated a claim for breach of contract,” Flood wrote.

“Although the majority assesses Plaintiffs’ conduct as making impossible a ‘positive, collaborative working relationship between the School[,]’ or alternatively, as ‘seriously interfer[ing] with the School’s mission[,]’ such that Defendants were justified in their termination of Plaintiffs’ enrollment contracts, I conclude that this determination is premature as it necessarily involves findings of fact,” the dissent added.  

“It is not within our appellate purview to determine at this stage in the proceeding whether Defendants were justified in their termination of Plaintiffs’ enrollment contracts,” Flood wrote.

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.”

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.

The May 7 petition arrived at the state Supreme Court more than one year after the Turpins first appealed to North Carolina’s seven justices. They filed a petition in March 2023 asking the state Supreme Court to bypass the Appeals Court and take up the case directly. The Supreme Court announced in September 2023 that it had rejected the bypass petition.