October 27, 2020

Claiming qualified immunity after denying an individual access to school district property

The petitioner [Plaintiff] appealed the dismissal of her 42 U.S.C. §1983 claims against the Central School District [District] and the District's Superintendent [Superintendent] by a federal district court.

Plaintiff had contended that her First Amendment and due process rights were violated when the Superintendent required her to obtain prior written permission to visit school property and that the Superintendent "expanded the scope of the restriction in retaliation for her objection to this requirement," and that these alleged violations occurred pursuant to a District custom or policy.

The United States Court of Appeal, Second Circuit, affirmed the federal district court's dismissal of Plaintiff's complaint, rejecting her arguments that:

(1) the limitations on her access to school property were not reasonable because no reasonable person could have believed that she was attempting to evade the school’s security procedures or that she otherwise presented a risk of disruption; and 

(2) in the absence of such a justification and because [the Superintendent] imputed a “negative” opinion of the school to her, a reasonable factfinder could conclude that the restrictions placed on her also were not viewpoint-neutral."

The court explained that the district court’s grant of qualified immunity to the District and Superintendent was premised on its conclusion that the parties did not dispute that the restriction “was a content-neutral response to [Plaintiff's] attempt to circumvent the school’s security protocol.”

In the words of the Circuit Court, “Qualified immunity insulates public officials from claims for damages where their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”

Addressing the doctrine of qualified immunity, the decisions notes that “[W]hen a defendant official invokes qualified immunity as a defense in order to support a motion for summary judgment, a court must consider two questions: 

(1) whether the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, makes out a violation of a statutory or constitutional right; and

(2) whether that right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation”

and under the second prong, officials are “entitled to qualified immunity [when] their decision was reasonable, even if mistaken.”

Qualified immunity is an affirmative defense and the defendant bears the burden of proof. Plaintiff did not present any evidence that contradicted the Superintendent's testimony that he believed that Plaintiff was attempting to bypass the school’s security policy when he confronted her on the morning of the incident nor did Plaintiff ever argued that the initial restriction announced in the letter sent to her was "viewpoint-based."

Thus, said the court "[a]bsent a genuine dispute as to whether the restriction on [Plaintiff’s]  access to school property was viewpoint-based, [the Superintendent] is entitled to qualified immunity on [Plaintiff’s] First Amendment claim because the evidence, even construed in [Plaintiff's] favor, established that a reasonable official could have believed that (1) [Plaintiff] was attempting to circumvent school security procedures and (2) the notification restriction was a reasonable and constitutional response to her actions."

Further, said the court, "it was not clearly established that a permission requirement was an unconstitutional response to a parent’s attempt to evade a security restriction," noting  that based on its precedent, including its conclusions about the contours of parents’ clearly established First Amendment rights at the time of the underlying events, "a reasonable superintendent in [the Superintendent's] position could have concluded that a parent can lawfully be restricted from school activities based on a risk of disruption or safety concerns as long as those concerns are not a pretext for viewpoint discrimination, and that a requirement that a parent receive prior permission to enter school property is a minor and reasonable response to such concerns."

Addressing Plaintiff's argument that the District was liable for the alleged violations of her constitutional rights because it maintained a custom or policy of permitting the Superintendent to make unilateral decisions regarding the enforcement of the District visitor’s policy, in contravention of the written policy placing this authority with school principals, the Circuit Court stated that to establish liability against the District under 42 U.S.C. §1983 Plaintiff was required to show that an official custom or policy caused a violation of her constitutional rights.* Here, again in the words of Circuit Court, "the district court properly concluded that the cited custom did not cause a deprivation of [Plaintiff's] rights — a custom of delegating authority to enforce the District visitor’s policy to [the Superintendent] does not establish the existence of a custom of permitting [the Superintendent] to exercise that authority unlawfully."

Finding that the Plaintiff did not show the existence of a policy or custom of imposing unconstitutional restrictions on access to District property and noting that the Superintendent had restricted access to school property on only four other occasions in the more than ten years he served as Superintendent, and there is no evidence that these other restrictions were not reasonable responses to legitimate safety concerns, the Circuit Court held that the district court properly granted summary judgment to the District on Plaintiff’s Monell claim.

* See Monell v. Dep’t of Social Services of the City of N.Y., 436 U.S. 658.

The decision is posted on the Internet at https://www.leagle.com/decision/infco20201022076

 

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