Private school groups back Charlotte Latin at state Supreme Court

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  • State and regional groups promoting private schools are supporting Charlotte Latin School in its legal fight with parents of two former students.
  • The North Carolina Association of Independent Schools and Southern Association of Independent Schools accuse Doug and Nicole Turpin of trying to “undermine the bedrock fundamental right of freedom of contract.”
  • Lower courts have ruled against the Turpins. They are urging the state Supreme Court to take their case. They accuse Charlotte Latin of breaching a contract to educate their children in 2021 after the Turpin parents questioned changes in the school's priorities and philosophy.

State and regional groups promoting private schools support Charlotte Latin in its dispute with two parents at the North Carolina Supreme Court. A court document filed Friday accused parents Doug and Nicole Turpin of  trying to “undermine the bedrock fundamental right of freedom of contract.”

The state’s high court issued an order Monday accepting the private school groups’ friend-of-the-court brief.

The Turpins sued Charlotte Latin after the private school expelled two Turpin children in 2021. A trial judge and split state Appeals Court panel have ruled against the family. The Turpins hope the state’s highest court will reverse those lower court decisions.

The North Carolina Association of Independent Schools and Southern Association of Independent Schools want the lower court decisions to remain intact. The state group represents “almost 90” schools enrolling more than 40,000 students.

“This case presents novel legal challenges … to what has long been understood as a fundamental aspect of freedom of contract, i.e., the rights of independent schools … to manage their relationships with parents by contract,” the private school groups’ lawyers wrote. “Appellants alleged sweeping legal theories that, if they proceeded, would undermine the bedrock fundamental right of freedom of contract and would lead to litigation in an area of longstanding, settled law.”

“Appellants’ legal theories also would imperil the First Amendment’s freedom of association by inserting lawyers and courts where they do not belong,” the court filing continued.

The Turpins have attracted support from 14 Republican state lawmakers and election candidates, including State House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland. Parent groups led by local Moms for Liberty chapters also have filed briefs backing the Turpins’ case.

The private schools’ latest court filing took aim at one of the groups supporting the Turpins. “Unlike the Moms for Liberty groups for various counties, NCAIS and SAIS are not tied to limited ideological issues but have long and established track records of promoting education throughout the southeastern United States, including in North Carolina,” the private school groups’ lawyers wrote.

Charlotte Latin filed its own state Supreme Court brief in May 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 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.

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.

valued community members, invited to speak to Latin’s board of trustees, to pariahs whose children were expelled.”

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.