Civil Rights Case Has Implications for Schools

By Mark Walsh — February 23, 2010 3 min read
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A case granted review this week by the U.S. Supreme Court has implications for school districts in lawsuits alleging violations of the constitutional rights of students or district employees.

The justices agreed to decide whether plaintiffs suing local governmental agencies, such as cities, counties, and school districts, must show that a constitutional violation was the result of a policy, custom, or practice of the agency even when they are merely seeking a court order to end the violation, as opposed to monetary damages.

In a 1978 decision, Monell v. New York City Department of Social Services, the Supreme Court removed local governments’ complete immunity from suits under a federal civil rights law known as Section 1983. That law allows suits for damages when government authority is used to deny a person’s federal constitutional or statutory rights.

In Monell, the high court ruled that cities, counties, and school districts could not be held liable merely because they employed someone who violated a person’s civil rights. But local governments could be liable if the deprivation of rights was tied to an official policy or custom of the agency.

The federal courts of appeals are divided, however, about whether a civil rights suit merely seeking declaratory relief, such as a court order, requires a showing that the challenged violation was the result of a policy or custom.

The Supreme Court granted review on Monday in County of Los Angeles v. Humphries (Case No. 09-350), which stems from a lawsuit brought by a California couple who were falsely accused of child abuse by their rebellious 15-year-old daughter and ended up on the state’s child-abuse index.

In what a lower court called a “parents’ nightmare,” Craig and Wendy Humphries found that there was no procedure for removing their names from the index, despite a court declaration that they were “factually innocent” of the abuse charges. The Humphries sued Los Angeles County and its sheriff, as well as the state, alleging a violation of their 14th Amendment right to due process of law. Among the difficulties the couple face, court papers say, is that Wendy Humphries is a special education teacher and her inclusion on the child-abuse index threatens her ability to remain licensed as a teacher.

Their suit sought damages as well as a judicial order to remove their names from the index and a finding that the state’s policies regarding the index were unconstitutional because they provided people with no means to challenge an unfair listing.

A federal district court largely ruled against the Humphries, but a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, held last year that the parents’ due-process rights were violated. It said the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was potentially liable under Monell for not adopting its own procedure for the falsely accused to remove their names from the child-abuse index.

The county’s appeal to the Supreme Court noted that several federal appeals courts have applied Monell‘s policy or custom requirement to non-damages claims. But the 9th Circuit has a line of cases, including the one involving the Humphries, that exempts such non-damages claims from the rule.

“The result is an end-run around this court’s repeated holdings that a public entity may only be held responsible for inflicting a constitutional injury where the conduct at issue was the result of a custom, policy or practice fairly attributable to the public entity,” the county’s appeal said.

Perry A. Zirkel, a professor of law and education at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., said in an interview that while the Monell issue is complicated, the new case is potentially significant for school districts. Districts are often sued in addition to school or district administrators over alleged constitutional violations. Districts are often able to argue at an early stage that a challenged action was due to an overzealous principal or other administrator but did not reflect the district’s official policies, he said.

The district will argue “that a principal did this on his or her own, and [the plaintiff] has not been able to show a policy or custom, so we’re off the hook,” Zirkel said.

If the Supreme Court goes along with the 9th Circuit’s approach, that could expose districts to some lengthier and more costly legal battles, at least where so-called declaratory relief was the remedy being sought, he added.

The Supreme Court will hear the case during the term that begins next October.

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