Florida appeals court says parents may not have grounds for school mask lawsuit

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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeals hammered another potential nail into the coffin of a school mask mandate lawsuit, filing a new opinion on a court order which added further legal strength to the mask policy ban imposed by state officials.

In the opinion, the higher court chose to once again block Judge John C. Cooper’s removal of an automatic stay, which had temporarily allowed mask policies to be reinstated in school districts that had them in place.

Cooper’s ruling came during arguments in Scott v. DeSantis, a lawsuit brought by parents concerned about the spread of COVID-19 in schools, and named Richard Corcoran, the Florida Commissioner of Education, Gov. Ron DeSantis, and other state officials as defendants.

The opinion from the 1st DCA whittled away more of the foundation of the parents’ legal arguments. The court opinion said that the parents may not even have legal standing to bring their lawsuit, as their allegations were based on a preemptive assumption of future injury, rather than harm having already occurred.

Cooper had already been overruled by the higher court and had initially only granted relief to the parents for two of the counts they brought against Florida leadership over their COVID-19 policies. With the ruling by the 1st DCA issued last night, the legal battle for the plaintiffs in Scott v. DeSantis becomes more untenable, in terms of legal muster in Florida’s courts.

At the center of the case, for both the state and the parents, was the recently passed Parents’ Bill of Rights, which established rules for school policies centered on student health, and strengthened the rights of parents to choose when, or if, their children would be potentially subject to policy changes centered on COVID-19, and other future concerns.

Despite Cooper’s legal opinion on the use of the law by Florida’s government to ban restrictions, the Leon County judge had said it did not explicitly do so, the 1st DCA ruling instead shores up the position taken by DeSantis and other officials regarding policy, Florida law, and legal implementation.

“While the Parents’ Bill of Rights undoubtedly played a role in the governor’s issuance of the executive order—and was even pleaded as an affirmative defense—the appellees never sought relief in their complaint based on an alleged violation of the Parents’ Bill of Rights,” the 1st DCA wrote. “They certainly never requested an injunction against a state administrative actor proceeding in some way in contravention of the Parents’ Bill of Rights.”

The court further ruled that Cooper’s order had given the plaintiffs, the parents, a relief that had not been requested by their lawsuit. As such, the court said they “quashed the vacatur and reinstated the automatic stay.”

For now, this means that the state’s current mask policy ban, or requirement for parental opt-out in school mask policies, continues. The decision accompanies the Florida Board of Education’s actions to penalize school districts that have more restrictive mask policies in place, and sanctions the state has leveled against Alachua and Broward counties for their current policies.

Following the ruling from the 1st DCA, Gov. DeSantis’s office issued a response, highlighting their own continued position on the mask fight and summing up the legal challenge made by parents over the Parents’ Bill of Rights and mask bans as a waste of taxpayer dollars.

“In sum, the case never should have wasted taxpayer resources by going to trial, and the State Defendants only lost in the trial court because the judge surprised everyone with a novel theory that the Parents’ Bill of Rights somehow prevents an expansion of parental rights,” according to a spokesperson for the governor.

Additionally, a spokesperson for the governor said the case shouldn’t have even made it as far through the court system as it has.

“In fact, the case never should have gone to trial because the Plaintiffs did not have standing to even assert the claims at issue,” according to the governor’s office.

Basing their statement on the court’s ruling, the governor’s spokesperson said “the Plaintiffs were not harmed by the Governor’s order because the order took no action against them. The Governor merely directed other state agencies to engage in rulemaking to protect parental rights.”

Other school districts facing similar penalties have chosen to adjust their policies to avoid the economic effects of the sanctions, as the state withholds funding equal to the salaries of the board members and superintendents of local school boards that vote to retain higher levels of restrictions, such as requiring medical exemptions rather than a simple option to decline masking.

Meanwhile, in another federal court in Florida, United States federal and military personnel have entered a class-action lawsuit against the federal government over the vaccine requirements ordered by President Joe Biden.

Gov. DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody also promised to continue their legal challenges to the federal policies to protect Floridians and strengthen the state’s workforce and economy, as well as calling a special legislative session to draft more COVID-19-focused protections for workers and businesses in Florida.

Still, the appeals in court are still pending.

The governor’s office said the ruling by the 1st DCA was a win for parents’ rights in Florida, and they believe the parents suing the state have little chance of keeping Cooper’s ruling, following the appeals process.

The plaintiff’s attorney, Charles Gallagher, responded to the new ruling and fired back at the court. He said they have yet to file their legal brief on the merits of their case but believe that the plaintiffs will receive a favorable outcome. The statement from Gallagher can be read below.

While the Court does provide tea leaves for its overall view of the entire appeal, we have yet to file our brief on the merits and we remain confident that the 1st DCA will ultimately come to a conclusion in favor of our clients.  Established Florida jurisprudence holds that the irreparable harm required for an injunction need not be guaranteed or incurred and can be presumed.  As such, the injury in fact required is not that children die or become gravely ill with COVID.  The lengthy evidentiary hearing provided ample record evidence of parents as to individualized injury in fact and medical expert testimony of the perilous public health conditions caused by the preclusion of school mask mandates.  Finally, the idea that the parents were asserting the “rights of others” is mitigated when you consider all those stakeholders that make up a school: students, parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members.  A school is truly the sum of its parts, and all those stakeholders have rights under the Florida Constitution to safe schools and self-governed schools.

Statement from Charles R. Gallagher, III, esq., representing Allison Scott et al in Scott v. DeSantis

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