Turpins challenge private school groups’ arguments in Charlotte Latin dispute

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  • Parents suing Charlotte Latin School over the expulsion of two children challenge arguments in the case from state and regional private school groups.
  • Lower courts have ruled against Doug and Nicole Turpin. The Turpins hope the North Carolina Supreme Court will take the case.
  • Charlotte Latin has urged the state's high court to keep lower court rulings intact. The North Carolina Association of Independent Schools and Southern Association of Independent Schools filed a joint brief this month supporting Latin's arguments.

Parents suing a Charlotte private school over the expulsion of two students are rebutting arguments from state and regional private school groups at the North Carolina Supreme Court. Parents Doug and Nicole Turpin hope the high court will take their case.

The Turpins argue that Charlotte Latin School breached its contract when it kicked out two Turpin children in 2021.

Lower courts have ruled for Charlotte Latin and against the Turpins. The state Appeals Court issued a 2-1 ruling in April favoring the school.

Now Charlotte Latin is urging the state Supreme Court to keep lower court rulings intact. The North Carolina Association of Independent Schools and Southern Association of Independent Schools filed a brief this month supporting the school.

The parents responded Monday.

“The Turpins’ theory of the case is simple: Private schools are businesses and businesses can commit torts, so private schools can commit torts,” the Turpins’ lawyers wrote. “That syllogism is neither offensive to the rights of private associations nor groundbreaking. Indeed, Latin itself admits that it is ‘[l]ike other businesses in’ our State, ‘competing’ in a ‘marketplace for customers.’”

“The Associations insist otherwise, casting the Turpins’ claims in dire terms,” the court filing continued. “They speculate, for example, that conniving parents may use Trojan Horse-like tactics to take down private schools — including conservative, Christian schools — from the inside by enrolling their children ‘for the purpose of challenging the school’s ideology.’”

“But the Turpins are not interested in breaching Troy’s walls. Private schools are critical to our society, and the freedom to contract allows private schools to build unique communities,” the Turpins’ lawyers wrote. “But the businesses that oversee those communities must treat their members — to use Latin’s words, their customers — fairly. That fair treatment did not happen here.”

“If Latin had dealt fairly with Mr. Turpin, we wouldn’t be here. Rather than answer Mr. Turpin’s questions about the school’s changing culture, Latin’s board directed Mr. Turpin to the school’s administration. When Mr. Turpin followed that directive and communicated fresh concerns to Latin’s Head of Middle School, Todd Ballaban, Ballaban set the wheels in motion to expel” the two children, according to the court filing. “Both the record and Latin’s briefing highlight that, at each step, rather than rejecting Mr. Turpin’s concerns outright, Latin invited him to speak and eventually used that invitation against him.”

“Contrary to what the Associations say, this case isn’t about Latin’s curriculum. It’s about Latin’s mistreatment of its customers,” the Turpins’ lawyers explained.

The private school associations supported Charlotte Latin’s arguments in a friend-of-the-court brief.

“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’ 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.”

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 Supreme Court petition 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.

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.