Shellem v. Gruneweld, 2023 OK 26

Opinion:Shellem v. Gruneweld, 2023 OK 26
Subject Matter:Statutory Interpretation
Date Decided:March 28, 2023
Trial Court:District Court of Oklahoma County; Judge Andrews
Route to this Court:The trial court denied the Parents’ Temporary Restraining Order, but granted a Temporary Injunction on the basis that the parents established that Edmond School District’s quarantine policy likely violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Edmond School District appealed.
Facts:Prior to the start of the 2021-2022 school year, Oklahoma City County Health Department (OCCHD) expressed to the Edmond School District Board Members and Superintendent (collectively “District”) that quarantines should be recommended rather than required. District sent out a standard letter to parents alerting them that if their child was exposed to a positive COVID-19 case, which left the responsibility to quarantine or not up to the parents. Due to a rise in COVID-19 cases, District followed the advice of OCCHD and implemented the Policy that a vaccinated close contact was not required to quarantine unless he or she displayed symptoms, but an unvaccinated close contact that had not tested positive within ninety days was required to quarantine. The unvaccinated student would then be presented with two options: (1) a 7-day quarantine, in which the individual may return to school on day 8 if he or she provided a negative COVID-19 test on or after day 5 and continues to remain symptom free; or (2) a 10-day quarantine, in which the individual may return to school on or after day 11 if he or she remains symptom free.

As a result of the Policy, parents of children enrolled in Edmond Public Schools affected by the Policy filed a Petition for Declaratory Judgment and Injunctive Relief and an Application for Temporary Restraining Order in the District of Oklahoma County. Parents alleged the Policy violated: (1) 70 O.S. § 1210.189(A)(1); (2) their children’s Fourteenth Amendment right to procedural due process; and (3) their children’s First Amendment right to freely assemble. District objected and the Restraining Order was denied.

A week after the hearings on the Temporary Restraining Order and Petition for Injunctive Relief, the Attorney General filed a motion for leave to file an amicus curiae brief in support of granting Parents’ Injunction on the basis that the Policy violated 70 O.S.Supp.2021, § 1210.189(A)(1). Trial court denied relief on all three counts pleaded in the Petition, but granted a Temporary Injunction on Parents’ Equal Protection Clause argument and enjoined District from implementing or enforcing the Policy.
Standard of Review:“A judgment issuing or refusing to issue an injunction will not be disturbed on appeal unless the lower court has abused its discretion or the decision is clearly against the weight of the evidence.” Id. ¶ 11. “To reverse under an abuse of discretion standard, an appellate court must find the trial court’s conclusions and judgment were clearly erroneous, against reason and evidence.” Murlin v. Pearman, 2016 OK 47, ¶ 17. We will consider all the evidence on appeal to determine whether the trial court’s granting of a temporary injunction was an abuse of discretion. Dowell v. Pletcher, 2013 OK 50, ¶ 5.

“[A] clear abuse of discretion standard includes appellate review of both fact and law issues: ‘In order to determine whether there was an abuse of discretion, a review of the facts and the law is essential.'” Christian v. Gray, 2003 OK 10, ¶ 43 (quoting Bd. of Regents of Univ. of Oklahoma v. Nat’l Collegiate Athletic Ass’n, 1977 OK 17, ¶ 3). Underlying questions of law are reviewed de novo. Lierly v. Tidewater Petroleum Corp., 2006 OK 47, ¶ 16. An issue presented in this cause is one of statutory interpretation. Statutory interpretation presents a question of law which this Court reviews under a de novo standard. Corbeil v. Emricks Van & Storage, Guarantee Ins., 2017 OK 71, ¶ 10.
Analysis:On May 28, 2021, the Oklahoma Legislature passed Senate Bill 658, which made additions  to school health and safety statutes, among which was 70 O.S.2011, § 1210.189. The District argued that the Policy references three types of students exposed to COVID-19: (1) vaccinated students; (2) unvaccinated students who have tested positive for COVID-19 within the last ninety days; and (3) unvaccinated students who have not tested positive for COVID-19 within the previous ninety days. The Court determined that the Policy’s consideration of whether a student has tested positive for COVID-19 within the previous ninety days in addition to a student’s COVID-19 vaccination status does not cure the violation of 1210.189(A)(1). Concluding that the Policy does not violate § 1210.189(A)(1) because it also factors in whether a student has tested positive within the last ninety days would run contrary to the intent and plain language of the statute. The Policy on its face conditions a student’s attendance of school on COVID-19 vaccination status.

There was disagreement over the meaning of the word “attendance,” in that the District argued that virtual learning participation counted as attendance, whereas Parents and the Attorney General contended that “attendance” means physical, in-person attendance. The Court found the meaning of the term “attendance” to be unambiguous. The standard of interpretation “is to ascertain and give effect to legislative intent and purpose as expressed by the statutory language. . . It is presumed that the Legislature has expressed its intent in a statute’s language and that it intended what it so expressed.” Odom v. Penske Truck Leasing Co., 2018 OK 23, ¶ 17. Relying on this and the Merriam-Webster definition of “attendance” as “the act or fact of attending something” and the definition of “attend” being “to be present at: to go to,” the Court deemed that the plain meaning of the word and the legislative intent based on the statutory text indicated that the Legislature meant in-person, physical attendance.

The Court found that the Policy effectively prohibited unvaccinated students from attending school when exposed to COVID-19 because of their vaccination status. Because “attendance” means in-person attendance, the Policy violated § 1210.189(A)(1). Because of this holding, the Court did not discuss the Temporary Injunction based on the Equal Protection Clause claim.
Outcome:Order of the District Court vacated; Declaratory Judgment granted.
Vote:5-4; Kane, C.J., Rowe, V.C.J. (author), Winchester, Darby, and Kuehn, JJ., concur. Kauger, J. (by separate writing), Edmondson, Combs (by separate writing), and Gurich, JJ., dissent.
Other:Justice Combs, joined by Justices Kauger, Edmondson, and Gurich, dissented from the majority on several grounds. First, that the majority’s judgment was irregular given that the issues that it addressed were not raised in the briefs. Issues raised for review were issues related to the trial court’s findings that Parents would likely succeed on their claim that the COVID-19 Policy violated the Equal Protection Clause, that the parents gave evidence of irreparable harm, and the injury to children outweighed the harm to the District. Because Parents did not preserve for review the judgment on appeal vacating the trial court’s temporary injunction and granting declaratory judgment in favor of Parents. The Justices disagreed that the Parents would have likely succeeded on Equal Protection grounds because the guidance from the county health department and the CDC were a rational basis for the implementation of the COVID-19 Policy. Further, Justice Combs disagreed with the majority’s understanding of “attendance,” because the intent of section 12.10(A)(1) was not to target quarantine policies that exclude students for a short amount of time, but rather at actions preventing students from attending as in enrolling in the school. Within the context of the legislative bill, we’ve already seen that the Legislature employed the term “attendance” in its amendment of section 1210.191(E) to mean “enrollment.” Act of May 28, 2021, ch. 575, sec. 1, § 1210.191(E), 2021 Okla. Sess. Laws 4442, 4443. Relying on noscitur a sociis, “attendance of” is grouped with “attendance to” and section 1210.191(A)’s use of admittance connotes enrollment and acceptance to a school for the coming year.