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Araujo v. Bryant

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

September 5, 2019

CHARLES ARAUJO, CASSANDRA OVERTON -WELCHLIN, ARTHUR BROWN, EVELYN GARNER ARAUJO AND LUTAYA STEWART
v.
GOVERNOR PHIL BRYANT, JPS, MS DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, GLADYS OVERTON, ANDREW OVERTON, SR., ELLA MAE JAMES, TIFFANY MINOR, THE MISSISSIPPI CHARTER SCHOOLS ASSOCIATION, MIDTOWN PARTNERS, INC. AND MIDTOWN PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 02/13/2018

          HINDS COUNTY CHANCERY COURT HON. J. DEWAYNE THOMAS JUDGE

          TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: WILLIAM B. BARDWELL LYDIA WRIGHT JODY E. OWENS, II KRISSY C. NOBILE KASHONDA DAY JOANNE N. SHEPHERD CYDNEY ARCHIE MICHAEL J. BENTLEY MOLLY M. WALKER R. GREGG MAYER JAMES W. SHELSON D. MICHAEL HURST, JR.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS: WILLIAM B. BARDWELL JODY E. OWENS, II CHRISTINE BISCHOFF

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEES: OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL BY: KRISSY C. NOBILE JAMES W. SHELSON MICHAEL J. BENTLEY MOLLY M. WALKER MICHAEL B. WALLACE AARON R. RICE JOANNE N. SHEPHERD

          CHAMBERLIN, JUSTICE.

         ¶1. Under the Mississippi Charter Schools Act of 2013 (the Act), a charter school receives funds from two sources: (1) local ad valorem taxes paid from the school district within which the charter school is located and (2) per-pupil funds paid from the Mississippi Department of Education. Miss. Code Ann. § 37-28-55 (Supp. 2018). In chancery court, the Plaintiffs challenged both sources of funding as unconstitutional under Article 8, Sections 206 and 208, of the Mississippi Constitution. Also, one of the charter-school intervenors maintained that the Plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the suit. The chancellor held that the Plaintiffs did have standing to sue and that they did not prove that either source of funding was unconstitutional. Before this Court, the Plaintiffs have concentrated their efforts under Article 8, Section 206, of the Mississippi Constitution, alleging that a charter school's ad valorem funding is unconstitutional. They did not appeal the chancellor's ruling concerning per-pupil funds. Further, the Jackson Public School District (JPS) maintains that the chancellor erred in denying its motion to be dismissed from the suit.

         ¶2. After review, we affirm the judgment of the chancery court. We agree that the Plaintiffs do have standing to sue. We also agree with the chancery court that the Plaintiffs did not meet their burden to demonstrate that Section 37-28-55 is unconstitutional. Last, we find that JPS's arguments concerning its motion to dismiss are waived on appeal for failure to raise the issue in a cross-appeal.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶3. On July 11, 2016, Charles Araujo, Evelyn S. Garner Araujo, Casandra Overton- Welchin, John Sewell, Kimberly Sewell, Lutaya Stewart and Arthur Brown (collectively, the Plaintiffs), on their own behalf as taxpayers and as next friends of their minor children, sued Governor Phil Bryant, the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) and JPS in the Chancery Court of Hinds County. The Plaintiffs were ad valorem taxpayers in Jackson with minor children who attend school in JPS. The ad valorem taxes at issue that were paid by the Plaintiffs were designated as "Separate School District" taxes.

         ¶4. In their first amended complaint, the Plaintiffs maintained that the Act's funding scheme for charter schools was unconstitutional. Specifically, they challenged Section 37-28-55(2), which mandates that when a student attends

a charter school located in the school district in which the student resides, the school district in which a charter school is located shall pay directly to the charter school an amount for each student enrolled in the charter school equal to the ad valorem tax receipts and in-lieu payments received per pupil for the support of the local school district in which the student resides.

Miss. Code Ann. § 37-28-55(2) (Supp. 2018).[1] The Plaintiffs asserted that Section 37-28-55(2) unconstitutionally diverted public funds to charter schools. They relied on the language of Article 8, Section 206, of the Mississippi Constitution. It reads,

There shall be a state common-school fund, to be taken from the General Fund in the State Treasury, which shall be used for the maintenance and support of the common schools. Any county or separate school district may levy an additional tax, as prescribed by general law, to maintain its schools. The state common-school fund shall be distributed among the several counties and separate school districts in proportion to the number of educable children in each, to be determined by data collected through the office of the State Superintendent of Education in the manner to be prescribed by law.

Miss. Const. art. 8, § 206 (emphasis added).

         ¶5. As the case progressed in chancery court, Gladys Overton, Andrew Overton, Sr., Ella Mae James and Tiffany Minor-parents of children enrolled in charter schools-intervened as Defendants. The Mississippi Charter Schools Association, Midtown Partners, Inc., and Midtown Public Charter School intervened as Defendants as well. Also, JPS filed a motion to dismiss arguing that it was not a necessary party to the suit. The chancery court denied JPS's motion.

         ¶6. Throughout the litigation, all parties filed motions for summary judgment. The Plaintiffs filed a superseding motion for summary judgment. Governor Bryant and MDE filed a combined motion. Also, all the Intervenor-Defendants filed motions for summary judgment. In their summary-judgment motion, Midtown Partners, Inc., and Midtown Public Charter School (collectively, Midtown) raised the issue of the Plaintiffs' standing to challenge the constitutionality of the statute. In the alternative, Midtown argued that Section 37-28-55(2) was constitutional.

         ¶7. On February 13, 2018, the chancery court entered an order denying the Plaintiffs' superseding motion for summary judgment. The order also granted Governor Bryant and MDE's combined motion for summary judgment and the Intervenor-defendants' motions for summary judgment. That same day, the Plaintiffs filed their notice of appeal in this Court.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Standing

         ¶8. The standard of review for issues of standing is de novo. Davis v. City of Jackson, 240 So.3d 381, 383 (Miss. 2018). "The existence of subject-matter jurisdiction . . . turns on the well pleaded allegations of the complaint which are taken as true." SASS Muni-V, LLC v. DeSoto Cty., 170 So.3d 441, 445 (Miss. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Am. Fid. Fire Ins. Co. v. Athens Stove Works, Inc., 481 So.2d 292, 296 (Miss. 1985)).

         Constitutional Challenge

         ¶9. "[U]nder Mississippi law a party challenging the constitutionality of a statute must prove unconstitutionality beyond a reasonable doubt." Cities of Oxford, Carthage, Louisville, Starkville & Tupelo v. Ne. Miss. Elec. Power Ass'n, 704 So.2d 59, 65 (Miss. 1997) (citing Sec'y of State v. Wiesenberg, 633 So.2d 983, 989 (Miss. 1994)). Thus,

one who assails a legislative enactment must overcome the strong presumption of validity and such assailant must prove his conclusions affirmatively, and clearly establish it beyond a reasonable doubt. All doubts must be resolved in favor of validity of a statute. If possible, a court should construe statutes so as to render them constitutional rather than unconstitutional if the statute under attack does not clearly and apparently conflict with organic law after first resolving all doubts in favor of validity.

State v. Bd. of Levee Comm'rs for Yazoo-Miss. Delta, 932 So.2d 12, 19-20 (Miss. 2006) (quoting Ne. Miss. Elec. Power Ass'n, 704 So.2d at 65).

         ANALYSIS

         I. Standing

         ¶10. In their initial brief, the Plaintiffs urge us to find that the issue of standing has been waived, since Midtown did not file a notice of cross-appeal on the issue of standing. Midtown did not raise the issue on cross-appeal. Thus, the Plaintiffs argue that the issue is waived.

         ¶11. For support, the Plaintiffs rely on Hill Brothers Construction & Engineering Co. v. Mississippi Transportation Commission, 909 So.2d 58, 60 (Miss. 2005). They argue that the Hill Brothers Court found that a party had waived its right to challenge standing by not raising the issue in a notice of cross-appeal. In Hill Brothers, the Court did recognize that a party had not filed a cross-appeal "but raised 'standing' in its appellate brief." Hill Bros., 909 So.2d at 60. The Court also concluded, "As this issue is not properly before the Court, we decline to address this issue on the merits." Id. This conclusion, though, did not mean that the issue of standing had been waived. Instead, the Hill Brothers Court simply recognized that standing had not been properly raised before the Court and declined to address the issue on the merits. Id.

         ¶12. Further, it is well established that standing is a jurisdictional issue that may be raised by the parties or the Court at any time. City of Madison v. Bryan, 763 So.2d 162, 166 (Miss. 2000); Davis, 240 So.3d at 383. Thus, Midtown did not waive its standing challenge.

         ¶13. Turning to the merits of Midtown's claim that standing has been waived, we recently reviewed Mississippi's law on standing:

It is well settled that Mississippi's standing requirements are quite liberal. This Court has explained that while federal courts adhere to a stringent definition of standing, limited by Art. 3, ยง 2 of the United States Constitution to a review of actual cases and controversies, the Mississippi Constitution contains no such restrictive language. Therefore, this Court has been more permissive in granting standing to parties who seek review of governmental actions. In Mississippi, parties have standing to sue when they assert a colorable interest ...

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