Charlotte private school responds to critics in Turpin case

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  • A Charlotte private school locked in a legal battle with parents of two expelled children responded Tuesday to groups supporting the parents' bid to take the case to the North Carolina Supreme Court.
  • Court filings from Charlotte Latin School addressed friend-of-the-court briefs filed by 14 Republican state lawmakers and election candidates and a coalition of education-related activist groups. The GOP and activist briefs supported parents Doug and Nicole Turpin.
  • Lower courts have ruled against the Turpins. The parents have asked the state Supreme Court to take the case. They argue that Charlotte Latin expelled their children after the parents raised questions about changes in the school's priorities and philosophy.

A Charlotte private school involved in a legal dispute with parents of two expelled students responded Tuesday to Republican officials who back the parents’ case.

Lawyers for Charlotte Latin School filed two documents with the state Supreme Court.

The first addressed arguments 14 GOP lawmakers and election candidates made in a recent amicus, or friend-of-the-court, brief. The Republican officials urged the high court to take up the case pitting Latin against parents Doug and Nicole Turpin.

The Turpins accuse Charlotte Latin of expelling the Turpin children after the parents started questioning changes in the school’s priorities and philosophy. A trial judge and a split state Appeals Court panel have ruled against the family.

“Amici attempt to recast this case as a determination of the rights of parents to criticize diversity, equity and inclusion (‘DEI’) programs. But Amici fail to consider several key points,” Charlotte Latin’s lawyers wrote.

“First, Latin is a private school that Plaintiffs chose and with whom Plaintiffs entered into a valid binding contract,” the court filing continued. “Second, the tort claims that Plaintiffs seek to resurrect fail on their face without regard to the subject matter of Plaintiffs’ grievances. Third, what Amici (including members of the Legislature) ask the Court to do violates North Carolina statutory law.”

“Fourth, Amici fail to point to any legal principles of major significance or to any decision of this Court that is in conflict with the Panel’s unanimous affirmance of the lower court’s dismissal,” Charlotte Latin’s lawyers added. “While DEI programs may raise political issues worthy of debate, the subject of Plaintiffs’ criticisms of Latin do not give rise to any actionable torts.”

A separate state Supreme Court filing responded to a friend-of-the-court brief from Moms for Liberty, Moms for America, Color Us United, New Tolerance Campaign, Educational Veritas, Parents Unite, and Future Prep Educational Services. That brief also supported the Turpins’ plea for a state Supreme Court review.

“Each private school decides what textbooks to use and what materials are appropriate in their library,” according to Charlotte Latin’s response. “They also determine whether and to what extent cultural or religious principles will underpin their mission and curriculum. Not surprisingly, these choices vary from school to school, and parents are free to choose among them to obtain a philosophy and curriculum that suits their family.”

“Each private school is also free to define parents’ roles and responsibilities in their contracts,” Latin’s lawyers wrote. “If a parent does not like the education they have purchased, their remedies lie in contract and in the marketplace. Burdening everyday contractual relationships between parents and private schools with spurious tort claims when schools refuse to change school policy creates a significant risk of harm to the public generally, and to school choice specifically.”

The new court filings arrived little more than a week after Charlotte Latin filed a brief with North Carolina’s highest court responding to the Turpins.

“Independent and religious schools are private entities that have the freedom to set their own curriculum and policies,” wrote Charlotte Latin’s lawyers. “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 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 second 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.

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.