September 13, 2019

State employees sued in a civil action for deprivation of rights brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983 assert a qualified immunity defense


The Second Circuit United States Circuit Court of Appeals' decision summarizes the events giving rise to this litigation as follows:

1. In 2008 an educator [Plaintiff] was investigated by the New York State Education Department [Department] and charged committing acts of sexual misconduct  in 1989 and 1992 with former students, resulting in a one-year suspension of his state licenses;

2. In 2011 Plaintiff obtained employment as a substitute teacher with another School District [District] in New York State;

3. In 2012 the Department informed the Districtʹs superintendent that it "had opened an ethics investigation" into Plaintiff's conduct;

4. Plaintiff was terminated from his substitute teaching position with the District;

5. Employees of the Department [Defendants] ultimately concluded that there were no grounds for an investigation.

Plaintiff brought suit in federal district court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983 with respect to the termination of his employment by the District against the Defendants, whereupon the Defendants asserted a qualified immunity defense.*  

The district court denied the Defendantsʹ motion for summary judgment without addressing the Defendants' claimed qualified immunity defense.  In response to Defendants' motion for reconsideration, the district court, addressing that issue for the first time,  concluded that the Defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity because Plaintiff had demonstrated that Defendants "had violated clearly established law."

Defendants appealed, arguing that the district court erred in denying their motion for summary judgment based on the claim of having qualified immunity.  The United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, sustained Defendants' appeal, explaining that:

[a] Plaintiffʹs due process claim failed because he did not show a clearly established right to the meaningful opportunity to utilize his teaching license;  and

[b] Plaintiff also failed to demonstrate that the Defendantsʹ conduct was sufficiently stigmatizing under clearly established law so as to give rise to his  ʺstigma-plusʺ claim.  

Accordingly, the Circuit Court ruled that the Defendants were entitled to qualified immunity and that the district court erred in denying their motion for summary judgment.

As the coda to the decision, the Circuit Court opined that "We are not unsympathetic to [Plaintiff], who may have been unfairly treated by the [Defendants] with unfortunate results.  But for the reasons set forth [in its opinion, Defendant's] behavior did not give rise to a cause of action under section 1983 that could survive the [Defendantsʹ] qualified immunity defense." **

* In Doninger v. Niehoff, USCA, Second Circuit, 642 F.3d 334, writ of certiorari denied, 132 S.Ct. 499, the court addressed the issue of determining if a public officer may claim a qualified immunity from civil lawsuits. The Second Circuit said that two tests are involved in determining if a claim of qualified immunity is available to the officer or the employee. The first test: considering “the facts" in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, do they show that the [individual's] conduct violated a constitutional right. If the plaintiff’s cause of action survives this test, the court then applies a second test: whether the right at issue was ‘clearly established’ at the time of [the official's] alleged misconduct.” If the court finds that the public officer’s conduct did not violate a clearly established constitutional right, or if it was objectively reasonable for the officer to believe that his or her conduct did not violate such a right, then the official is protected by qualified immunity. 

** See https://publicpersonnellaw.blogspot.com/2018/02/sovereign-immunity-absolute-immunity_12.html addressing Sovereign Immunity, Absolute Immunity, Qualified Immunity, Use Immunity, Transaction Immunity and Qualified Privilege claims that may be advanced by public officers and employees involved in litigation and, or, administrative hearings.

The decision is posted on the Internet at: 

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