The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week to take up an issue stemming from the case of a California teacher and her husband who were wrongfully accused of child abuse and then found that they had no way to remove their names from a state child-abuse registry.
The legal question accepted by the justices holds importance for school districts: whether plaintiffs suing local governmental agencies must show that a constitutional violation was the result of a policy or practice of the agency, even when the plaintiffs are merely seeking a court order to end the violation, as opposed to monetary damages.
The high court granted review last week in County of Los Angeles v. Humphries (Case No. 09-350), which stems from a suit brought by Craig and Wendy Humphries after they 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,” the couple 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. They 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 Ms. Humphries’ inclusion on the child-abuse index threatens her ability to remain licensed as a special education teacher.
A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, held last year that the county sheriff’s department was potentially liable under a 1978 Supreme Court decision for not adopting its own procedure for the falsely accused to remove their names from the child-abuse index.
In Monell v. New York City Department of Social Services, the high court held that districts and other local agencies could be liable for damages only when an action by one of their employees was tied to an official “policy, custom, or practice.” The federal courts of appeals are divided about whether a suit merely seeking a court order must meet the same standard. The Supreme Court will hear the case during the term that begins in October.
A version of this article appeared in the March 03, 2010 edition of Education Week as High Court to Hear Teacher’s Case