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High Court To Review Case on Immunity Defense

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Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week to review an important procedural case affecting the ability of government officials, including school administrators, to raise a defense of immunity in civil rights lawsuits.

The high court agreed to decide whether officials facing such lawsuits in state courts have the right to immediately appeal a judge's decision denying them official immunity.

The issue arises fairly often for school administrators and other government officials sued under the federal Civil Rights Act of 1871, a Reconstruction-era law that is frequently the basis for suits alleging that government officials have deprived someone of a constitutional right.The law is better known for its place in the federal code, Section 1983.

One of the first defenses officials usually raise is that they are immune from being sued because their actions were taken in good faith. When a judge grants such immunity, the official avoids the burden of a trial and a potential finding of liability.

Officials sued under Section 1983 in federal courts have the right to immediately appeal an adverse immunity decision.

But state courts are divided on whether immunity rulings can be appealed right away. Several states allow such appeals, but some leave the decision up to a trial judge. Others bar such appeals until after a final judgment in the lawsuit is rendered.

The high court on Oct. 21 agreed to use a case from Idaho to resolve the issue.

Johnson v. Fankell (Case No. 96-292) involves a civil rights suit brought by an employee fired from her job with the Idaho State Liquor Dispensary. Four officials of the state agency who are defendants in the suit raised an immunity defense that was rejected by a state trial court. The defendants sought to appeal the denial of immunity, but the Idaho Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal because it was not based on a final judgment.

A friend-of-the-court brief filed by 32 states argues that immunity from lawsuits is of little value for officials if they cannot immediately appeal potentially erroneous rulings denying them immunity. "Qualified immunity is critical to the thousands of [government officials] sued each year in state court as a protection against the depletion of resources and ... the burdens of standing trial," the brief says.

The high court will hear arguments in the case next year, with a ruling expected by next July.

Title IX Case

Separately last week, the court refused to upset a federal appeals court ruling that rejected the use of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 for employment-discrimination cases against schools and colleges.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled last year that the main federal job-discrimination law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, provides the "exclusive remedy" for employment-related sex-discrimination suits against educational institutions.

The appeals court said Congress did not intend Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in schools receiving federal funds, "to offer a bypass of the remedial process of Title VII."

The ruling came in the case of Joan M. Lakoski, a professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch-Galveston, who alleged that her denial of tenure was based on sex discrimination.

The high court refused without comment to hear the professor's appeal in Lakoski v. University of Texas (No. 95-1439).

The justices' refusal to review the decision was surprising because they had asked the Clinton administration for its views, and the administration said the appeals court ruling was wrong.

"Congress did not intend Title VII to preclude employment-discrimination claims under Title IX," the Justice Department argued in its brief.

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