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Mazanec v. North Judson-San Pierre School Corp.

decided: August 12, 1986.

RICHARD MAZANEC, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
NORTH JUDSON-SAN PIERRE SCHOOL CORPORATION, ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division. No. S81-219--Allen Sharp, Judge.

Author: Flaum

Before CUMMINGS, Chief Judge, BAUER and FLAUM, Circuit Judges.

FLAUM, Circuit Judges.

To the Mazanecs, and those have filed amicus curiae briefs on their behalf, this case poses serious constitutional questions concerning the right of parents to educate their children at home based on their sincerely held religious convictions. The district court did not share this vision of the proceedings. The judge found no basis for injunctive relief and that various immunities protected these defendants from damage suits under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Mazanecs did receive some vindication in that the district court found that their children's home education was sufficient to constitute "instruction equivalent to that given in the public schools" under Indiana's compulsory education act. Ind. Code § 20-8.1-3-34. The district court did not, however, agree with the Mazanecs that this finding entitled them to attorney's fees as a prevailing party in a section 1983 suit. We find that the plaintiffs' claims for injunctive and declaratory relief are moot; that with respect to the school corporation and its attendance officer (the only two defendants whose immunity is challenged) the record indicates a lack of wrongdoing that precludes the imposition of any monetary award against these defendants; and that the Mazanecs were not prevailing parties entitled to attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988. The judgment of the district court is accordingly affirmed.

I.

At the start of the 1979-80 school year Barbara Mazanec, an ordained minister of the Jehovah's Witness faith, pulled her children out of the North Judson school system. She did this because she believed that the environment and education provided by the public schools were incompatible with her family's religious precepts. The Mazanec children were enrolled in a home school program through the Santa Fe Community School for the 1979-80 school term. Defendant James Moore, superintendent and Local Attendance Officer of the North Judson-San Pierre School Corporation, inquired into what arrangements had been made for the education of the children. Moore contacted the director of the Santa Fe Community School and, although the superintendent had doubts about the efficacy of such a home school program, he believed that it was sufficient to bring the Mazanecs into compliance with the Indiana compulsory education statute.

The problems that led to the filing of the current action arose in September of 1980. Barbara Mazanec decided not to re-enroll her children in the Santa Fe Community school but to create her own school, the Greenhouse Academy, that would be operated out of the Mazanec home. Mr. Moore once again inquired as to the alternative educational arrangements that were being made for the children. Mrs. Mazanec responded to his inquiries by a letter dated September 10, 1980 that stated that she was aware of her obligations and rights under Indiana law and that there would be a slight delay in complying with Moore's request.

On September 22, 1980 Mr. Moore swore out a complaint against the Mazanecs with the prosecuting attorney for the 44th Judicial Circuit of the State of Indiana. The record indicates that this decision was based on evidence that the children were seen unsupervised during school hours a month after the start of the term at the public schools and on the refusal of the Mazanecs to cooperate with Moore in verifying the educational program of the Greenhouse Academy. The superintendent's efforts to satisfy himself that the Mazanecs were complying with Indiana law were met with what the district judge described as a "Mazanec stone-wall."

On September 29, 1980, the day the prosecutor elected to file a criminal information against the parents, Barbara Mazanec finally responded to Moore with a letter announcing the opening of the Greenhouse Academy, a legally incorporated private school. This letter described the curriculum of the school in very general terms and expressed the opinion that the letter was sufficient to prove the family was in compliance with Indiana law.

In the ensuing months Mrs. Mazanec entered into a dialogue with Marilyn Mabry, the State Attendance Officer, concerning the requirements for the establishment of a home school. The focus of these conversations was Mrs. Mazanec's attempts to understand what she had to do in order to comply with the compulsory attendance law. These conversations culminated in a letter, dated March 30, 1981, in which Ms. Mabry expressed the opinion that the Mazanecs were in compliance with Indiana law. Significantly, there is no evidence in the record indicating that Mabry's opinion was ever provided to Mr. Moore or the prosecuting attorney. In a letter to Mr. Moore dated July 13, 1981, Mrs. Mazanec, in the course of announcing her intention to sue the superintendent and the school corporation for malicious prosecution, referred to the letter from the State Attendance Officer. Mr. Moore, however, never saw Ms. Mabry's letter nor was he ever contacted by the state attendance office.

On August 7, 1981, the state circuit court dismissed the criminal charges pending against the Mazanecs for lack of probable cause. The prosecutor, believing the dismissal was the product of a technical deficiency, filed a new information accompanied by a new affidavit that the prosecutor drafted for Mr. Moore's signature. In September of 1981 the state court once again dismissed the charges. At this point the prosecutor decided that the misdemeanor charges did not warrant further consideration by his office.

The Mazanecs' civil rights complaint has had a longer and more complex history than the criminal charges that precipitated the suit. Their amended complaint asserts eight causes of action under the first and fourteenth amendments. The rights allegedly abridged include the right to free exercise of religion, the right of freedom of speech, the right to freedom of association in educational endeavors, the right under the Due Process clause to have their liberty and property interests in the Greenhouse Academy protected, and the right to equal protection of the law. The complaint names as defendants Mr. Moore, the school corporation, the prosecuting attorney, and Ms. Mabry, and seeks injunctive and declaratory relief, as well as compensatory and punitive damages. As an initial matter the district court disposed of the case based on the doctrine of abstention. This court, however, did not accept the invocation of that doctrine. See Mazanec v. North Judson-San Pierre School Corp., 750 F.2d 625 (7th Cir. 1984), and Mazanec v. North Judson-San Pierre School Corp., 763 F.2d 845 (7th Cir. 1985).

On remand the district court conducted a three-day hearing following which the court entered an opinion dismissing the Mazanecs' complaint. The district court believed that counsel for the Mazanecs had taken an overexpansive view of the case. The court found that the requested injunctive relief, which amounts to providing guidelines for state and local officials in applying Indiana's compulsory attendance act, essentially would be an advisory opinion, particularly in light of the fact that there was no continued threat of prosecution. With respect to the damage claims the district court ruled that all the defendants were entitled to good faith or absolute immunity. The district court did, however, make one important finding for the plaintiffs: the district judge found that the Mazanec children had received an education equivalent to that available in the public schools. Having so determined the district court found it unnecessary to decide the constitutional issues because the state law fully accommodated the constitutional rights asserted.

This last finding served as the basis for the Mazanecs' claim in their motion to amend judgment that they had prevailed on a significant issue in the litigation and were thus entitled to attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988. The district court rejected the request on the grounds that plaintiffs had, for various reasons, ...


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