Week Twenty-Seven

Week of July 3, 2017 through July 7, 2017

Dustin Buxton v. Sandra Kurtinitis (Floyd 7/7/2017): The Fourth Circuit held the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution “has no application in the context of speech expressed in a competitive interview” and held a school does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment when considering an applicant’s seemingly awkward or improperly frequent discussion of religion during an interview.  The court reasoned that the interviewer did not consider the applicant’s beliefs but rather his frequent discussion of religion, and gave the applicant a low interview score because his frequent discussion of religion was a display of poor interpersonal skills.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the appellant’s Free Speech claim and grant of summary judgment as to the appellant’s Establishment Clause claim.  Full Opinion

Kevin Quinn v. Board of County Commissioners (Wilkinson 7/7/2017): The Fourth Circuit held a local government’s choice to exclude hundreds of lots from the sewer services needed to make the lots developable does not amount to a regulatory taking.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order dismissing the regulatory taking, due process, and equal protection claims asserted by the aggrieved land owner.  Full Opinion

US v. Briceton Grant (Motz 7/6/2017): The Fourth Circuit held a district court does not err in denying a prisoner credit for time spent out of prison after he is erroneously released early.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order denying the prisoner’s “motion to receive credit for the ten days during which he was mistakenly released.”  Full Opinion

 

Highlight Case

Dustin Buxton v. Sandra Kurtinitis, No. 16-1826.

Decided: July 7, 2017

The Fourth Circuit held the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution “has no application in the context of speech expressed in a competitive interview” and held a school does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment when considering an applicant’s seemingly awkward or improperly frequent discussion of religion during an interview.  The court reasoned that the interviewer did not consider the applicant’s beliefs but rather his frequent discussion of religion, and gave the applicant a low interview score because his frequent discussion of religion was a display of poor interpersonal skills.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the appellant’s Free Speech claim and grant of summary judgment as to the appellant’s Establishment Clause claim.

This case came before the Fourth Circuit on appeal from the District Court of Maryland’s (Motz) order dismissing Dustin Buxton’s (“Buxton”) claim of a First Amendment Free Speech Clause violation and granting summary judgment against Buxton on his claim of an Establishment Clause violation.  Buxton sued in the District Court of Maryland after he was twice denied entrance into a competitive Radiation Therapy Program at the Community College of Baltimore County (“CCBC”).  Admission into the program was based on several factors, including an interview, grades, a logic exam, a writing sample, and observed behavior during an observation day at a local hospital.  Buxton received moderate scores on the academic and observation portions, but he did not perform exceedingly well.  He performed less well on the interview portion.  In a written note on Buxton’s interview, his interviewer noted he seemed to lack interpersonal skills and noted what she considered to be improperly frequent mentions of religion during the interview.  Buxton applied a second time, but the class of applicants was more competitive than the year before.  He was again denied admission. Subsequently, he initiated this suit for religious discrimination.

Regarding Buxton’s Free Speech claim, the court noted the interview process inherently relies upon distinctions “based upon speech—including the content and viewpoint—of the interviewee.”  Further explaining that point, the court offered an example:

Would Buxton argue that the defendants violated his right to free speech if they denied him admission because he said, in his interview, that he views cancer as a punishment from God that should not be treated? . . . [That] would be a perfectly valid reason to deny him admission to a program that trains students to treat individuals with cancer.

The court, therefore, held the Free Speech claim asserted by Buxton was improper, for free speech is generally not protected from admissions consequences in a competitive interview.  The court did note, however, there remains constitutional protections against discrimination in an interview, but protection of free speech is not implicated.

The court also found the district court properly denied Buxton’s motion for summary judgment on his Establishment Clause claims.  The court quickly walked through the three elements for a defendant to survive a claim of an Establishment Clause violation, which are provided in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). Under that test, the conduct must: 1) have a secular purpose, 2) have a primary effect of neither advancing nor inhibiting religion, and 3) not foster excessive entanglement with religion. First, the court stated CCBC’s goal was to identify qualified students, and this was clearly a secular goal.  Every factor considered by the school was related to that goal and, as the court noted, Buxton scored below average on every metric except one.  Moreover, the court stated the interview committee did not score Buxton low because of his beliefs, but rather because his choice to frequently discuss them in the interview reflected poor “interpersonal skills” and was deemed to be improper for a radiation therapy practitioner.  The second and third Lemon prongs were each summarily dismissed, since the court determined that CCBC was clearly not trying to advance or inhibit religion, and that there was no excessive entanglement with religion in the application process.  Consequently, the court rejected the appellant’s argument that his application was denied in violation of the Establishment Clause.

Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order dismissing Buxton’s Free Speech claim and granting summary judgment as to his Establishment Clause claim.

Full Opinion

James David George Jr.

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