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August 06, 2010

Superior reporting employee's misconduct had either absolute immunity or qualified immunity from liability

Superior reporting employee's misconduct had either absolute immunity or qualified immunity from liability
Taylor v Brentwood UFSD, CA2, 143 F.3d 679

A Brentwood school principal, Anne Rooney, alleged that district teacher, Charles B. Taylor, used corporal punishment in violation of district policy. After investigating the allegation, the district filed disciplinary charges against Taylor. The disciplinary panel found him guilty of the charges and he was suspended without pay for one year.

Taylor then filed a Section 1983 [Civil Rights] claim, naming Rooney and other district officials as defendants. He contended that his one-year suspension from teaching constituted race discrimination in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment (equal protection). A federal district court jury agreed with Taylor’s arguments and said that Rooney was liable for over $185,000 in damages. Rooney appealed and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York reversed the lower court’s decision.

The court cited with approval Rooney’s arguments that:

1. Her action [reporting the alleged use of corporal punishment] was not the proximate cause of any injury sustained by Taylor;

2. She had either absolute immunity or qualified immunity from liability because she acted pursuant to her official duty to report complaints regarding the use of corporal punishment by teachers to her superiors; and

3. Taylor, having been found guilty by the disciplinary panel, could not relitigate the issue of whether he was treated differently from similarly situated Caucasian teachers in his Section 1983 action.

The Circuit Court commented that “Taylor had a history of physical confrontations with students ...” occurring throughout the administrations of three different principals. It also took notice of the District’s “Corporal Punishment Policy” and evidence showing that Taylor had been “repeatedly reminded” of the policy over a fifteen-year period and had received several reprimands regarding the manner in which he disciplined students.

The Circuit Court ruled that Rooney could not be held liable because she was not proximately cause Taylor’s suspension. That, said the Court, action resulted following an investigation and a due process hearing in which Taylor was found guilty. It said that its decision in Jefferies v Harleston, 52 F3d 9, controlled the outcome of this case.

In Jefferies, the Circuit Court ruled that “although the actions of certain defendants were unconstitutional, liability under Section 1983 did not attach because such actions could not be considered the cause of any injury sustained by the plaintiff.”

The Court said that it believed that the independent investigations of the incidents by school officials, together with the school board’s filing charges culminating in the decision of the disciplinary hearing panel to suspend Taylor, constituted a superseding cause of Taylor’s injury, breaking the causal link between any racial animus Rooney may have had and Taylor’s suspension.

Concluding that no reasonable jury could find Rooney’s actions to be the cause of Taylor’s injury, the Court said that no new trial was necessary. Accordingly, all that was needed was for the Circuit Court to remand the case to the district court with instructions to enter judgment for Rooney.

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