The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

A Warning to Law Students and Young Lawyers

You don't want to explain to your clients why a court would say something like this in its opinion.


From Judge Andrew Guilford in M.B. v. Huntington Beach City School Dist., 2019 WL 3064485 (C.D. Cal. Apr. 15):

This case is about two elementary school students who were prevented from passing out religious flyers at school during school hours. Plaintiffs M.B. and N.B. attend John R. Peterson Elementary School in Huntington Beach, California. As part of "Bring Your Bible to School Day", Plaintiffs wanted to pass out religious flyers to classmates during lunch and recess. But school officials told Plaintiffs they could only pass out flyers before and after school. So Plaintiffs filed this lawsuit, asserting claims based on the First Amendment's Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses, and the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses. [Substantive analysis, which is pretty straightforward, omitted; but here's what particularly struck me:]

Defendants argue that it's unclear whether Polhemus is being sued in her official or individual capacity (or both) for each of Plaintiffs' claims. (Mot. to Dismiss at 7.) The Court agrees. The complaint's caption says Polhemus is being sued in her individual and official capacity. So does paragraph thirteen of the complaint. (See Compl. at ¶ 13.) But elsewhere in Plaintiffs' complaint, Plaintiffs say they're suing Polhemus in her individual capacity only. (See id. at ¶¶ 75, 83; see also id. at Prayer for Relief ¶¶ 6, 7.) And to make matters worse, Plaintiffs also seem to say they're suing the District in its individual capacity, which would be a legal impossibility. (See id. at Prayer for Relief ¶¶ 6, 7 ("Additionally Plaintiffs are entitled to nominal damages arising from the unconstitutional actions of Defendants and each of them, sued herein in their individual capacities …." (emphasis added)).) …

Though Plaintiffs vaguely request injunctive relief in their complaint, they fail to specify which Defendant is subject to such relief. (See Compl. at ¶¶ 3, 4, 58, 75, 79, 83.) And confusingly, at least one of Plaintiffs' requests for injunctive relief asks the Court to "restrain[ ] enforcement of the security fee policy." (Id. at ¶ 83.) What security fee policy? …

One last thing. The Court is concerned Plaintiffs' complaint, as it's currently drafted, lacks precision and likely proofreading. Perhaps this is best illustrated by the complaints numerous references to events that are entirely unrelated to this dispute, including references to Colorado and Ohio. (See id. at ¶ 6 (referencing "Ashtabla County, Ohio"); see also id. at ¶ 85 (referencing "the State of Colorado").) But it's clear that important constitutional issues are at stake. So if Plaintiffs' choose to amend their complaint, the Court urges them do so with care.

Of course, for every opinion like this in which a judge admonishes lawyers for carelessness, there are likely dozens of cases where a judge thinks ill of the lawyers for that but doesn't bother making the matter public. And if a judge thinks your work is sloppy, whether he thinks so quietly or openly, that won't help your credibility either in this case or in future ones.