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August 22, 2012

Qualified immunity is available as a defense where there is “no clearly established law” concerning the alleged act or omission



Qualified immunity is available as a defense where there is “no clearly established law” concerning the alleged act or omission
DiStico v Cook, et al, USCA, 2nd Circuit, Docket #10-4304-cv

The Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed, in part, a United States District Court’s denial of motions by a school principal and two teachers for summary judgment dismissing the action against them based on their claim that they were entitled to a “qualified immunity.”

Although the court sustained the district court’s ruling denying qualified immunity status with respect to allegations that the teachers “were deliberately indifferent to racial name-calling by kindergarten students, which in one instance may have been accompanied by a physical assault,”* the court said that the doctrine of qualified immunity**was applicable with respect to claims that the educators were deliberately indifferent to certain other allegedly racially motivated physical misbehavior by kindergarten and first-grade students.

This was so, explained the court, because there was no clearly established law permitted a finding that the educators had actual knowledge that commonplace physical misbehavior by children of this age was racially motivated.

In the words of the court, “To date, no Supreme Court or Second Circuit law clearly establishes that evidence of prior racial name-calling by unidentified kindergarten or first-grade students suffices to demonstrate that any subsequent physical misbehavior directed at the same classmate is also racially [motivated]. Indeed, we conclude that something more is necessary to support an inference that a teacher or school official actually knew such subsequent misconduct was racially motivated.”

In addition, said the court, the first-grade teacher was entitled to qualified immunity on this claim because her transmittal of parental complaints of physical misbehavior to the principal for investigation could not be deemed "clearly unreasonable" as a matter of law.

* The two teaches not entitled to qualified immunity with respect to these allegations “because there are disputed questions of fact for which the district court identified sufficient record evidence to support a verdict in favor of [DiStico].”

** Qualified immunity may be claimed by government officials as a defense to liability in an action for civil damages insofar as the act or omission involved did not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights that a reasonable person would have known [Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800].

The decision is posted on the Internet at:
http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/decisions/isysquery/a4ad1d49-9be3-40ae-af85-f81b7075cc76/1/doc/10-4304comp_opn.pdf#xml=http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/decisions/isysquery/a4ad1d49-9be3-40ae-af85-f81b7075cc76/1/hilite/

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