Appeals Court Backs Coaches in Disclosure of Student’s Sexual Orientation

By Mark Walsh — June 03, 2013 3 min read
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A federal appeals court has ruled that two Texas high school softball coaches are immune from a student’s privacy lawsuit because there was no clearly established law barring school officials from discussing a student’s private matters, including her sexual orientation, with the student’s parent.

The 2-1 decision by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, comes in the case of a mother who sued the Kilgore Independent School District and various officials, alleging that the two softball coaches confronted her 16-year-old daughter about whether she was a lesbian and then “outed” her during a meeting with the parent.

There appears to be little agreement over the facts of the case. The 5th Circuit court majority said the claims made by the mother “have been a constantly moving target,” with inconsistencies between the allegations in her suit and later deposition testimony and other evidence.

Generally, though, there appears to be agreement that the Kilgore High School student identified as S.W. had told close friends that she was a lesbian, court papers say. In 2009, she was having some form of close relationship with an 18-year-old woman, and the softball coaches were concerned for S.W. because they believed the 18-year-old was a bad influence on her. One of the softball coaches, Cassandra Newell, acknowledged in a deposition that she is a lesbian and had dated the 18-year-old woman.

The lawsuit filed by S.W.'s mother, Barbara Wyatt, alleges that the actions of the softball coaches violated her daughter’s privacy rights under the Fourth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and under provisions of the Texas Constitution. The Fourth Amendment claim includes an allegation that S.W. was the subject of an illegal “seizure” when the coaches locked her in a room to confront her.

A federal magistrate judge held that a student’s right to privacy about information over her sexual orientation was clearly established and thus the coaches were not entitled to qualified immunity. The judge also held that there were too many unresolved questions of fact to grant summary judgment to all the defendants.

The coaches, Newell and Rhonda Fletcher, appealed the denial of immunity to the 5th Circuit, and that was the sole question before the appeals court panel. In its May 31 decision in Wyatt v. Fletcher, the 5th Circuit court panel reversed the magistrate judge and held that the coaches were entitled to qualified immunity.

There is no controlling law “showing a clearly established 14th Amendment privacy right that prohibits school officials from communicating to parents information regarding minor students’ interests, even when private matters of sex are involved,” said the majority opinion by Judge E. Grady Jolly.

Writing in dissent, Judge James E. Graves Jr. said the U.S. Supreme Court and multiple lower courts have recognized a right to privacy with respect to personal sexual matters, and the 5th Circuit majority was refusing to extend that right to high school students.

Graves said S.W.'s privacy rights should have been balanced against the asserted interests of the softball coaches—protecting S.W. from a bad influence and team dissension caused by rumors of the gay relationship.

Graves said the magistrate judge “found that there was sufficient evidence from which a reasonable person could conclude that the coaches were not motivated by the need to protect S.W. but rather were retaliating against S.W. for allegedly spreading a rumor about Newell.”

“The state has no interest in retaliating against students,” the dissenting judge said.

Graves also would have denied immunity to the coaches over the Fourth Amendment unreasonable seizure claim based on their locking S.W. in a locker room to confront her.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.