Law & Courts

Curbing Immunity for Police Could Affect School Employees as Well

By Mark Walsh — June 11, 2020 10 min read
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The national dialogue about racial injustice in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody has brought renewed attention to “qualified immunity,” a legal doctrine that some advocates believe has helped insulate police officers from accountability for misconduct.

But any major changes to that doctrine would also likely affect another group of government workers: public school educators.

Qualified immunity protects certain classifications of government officials from personal liability, including money damages, in civil lawsuits in federal courts, as long as the conduct in question does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.

The doctrine is available not just to police officers—including school police officers—but to any government official exercising discretionary functions, and that includes teachers, principals, superintendents, and school board members. Some of the U.S. Supreme Court’s most significant decisions outlining the contours of qualified immunity have come in K-12 school cases, and educators routinely invoke it when they are sued, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.

But qualified immunity is under growing criticism from scholars, advocates, and even Supreme Court justices on the left and right, and the high court is weighing whether to take up one or more of nine pending appeals that ask for a broad reconsideration of the doctrine. In the wake of Floyd’s death, the Democratic police reform bill in Congress would eliminate qualified immunity for police officers, and Republicans are also looking at the doctrine.

“There is an unjust and indefensible double standard when it comes to accountability” for law enforcement officers, educators, and other government officials, said Clark Neily, the vice president for criminal justice of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington that has helped lead the charge for doing away with qualified immunity.

“This double standard has been a contributing factor in the anger and frustration spilling out into the streets,” Neily said.

For education groups, the debate is a bit delicate. Most have issued statements recommitting their support for racial equality after the death of Floyd, but likely would be reluctant to have the protections of qualified immunity stripped from their members.

Several education groups contacted by Education Week to discuss qualified immunity, including AASA, the School Superintendents Association, and the National School Boards Association, declined an interview request on the topic, and others did not respond.

“Qualified immunity is inherently a balancing act,” said Thomas Hutton, the interim executive director of the Education Law Association, a group for professors who teach school law as well as lawyers and some K-12 educators

Hutton, a former staff lawyer for the NSBA and a former state charter school official in Hawaii, said care would need to be taken in eliminating or scaling back qualified immunity for educators.

“It’s good to have a healthy discussion of where to strike the balance” between protecting individual rights and shielding officials from personal liability, he said. “But if you are going to suggest that public servants can be sued personally when they’re just trying to do their jobs and where the law is debatable even among lawyers and judges, that bodes ill for how we provide government services.”

Balancing ‘Two Important Interests’

Qualified immunity comes up when individual government officials are sued in federal court by someone asserting that his or her constitutional or statutory rights were violated “under color of law.” That right to sue comes from the Civil Rights Act of 1871, a Reconstruction-era law enacted in part to help battle the Ku Klux Klan. Such claims are known as Section 1983 claims for the law’s place in the U.S. code.

The doctrine of qualified immunity became available much later, beginning with police officers in the 1960s and other government officials after that. In 1975, in Wood v. Strickland, the Supreme Court recognized qualified immunity under Section 1983 for a school board member who was sued over the expulsion of three students. And in 1982, in Harlow v. Fitzgerald, the court overhauled the doctrine and held that government officials performing discretionary functions had qualified immunity based on an objective standard that their conduct did not violate clearly established rights about which a reasonable person would have known.

In a 1986 decision involving the police, Justice Byron R. White summarized qualified immunity as protecting “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”

More recently, in a 2009 decision, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. observed for a unanimous court that “qualified immunity balances two important interests—the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.”

Qualified immunity does not apply to school districts or other agencies often sued in civil rights cases. They have other immunities or defenses they can raise. And the federal doctrine does not apply in state court actions, though some states offer similar immunities to individual defendants.

Qualified immunity has figured prominently in some landmark school law cases in the Supreme Court.

In Morse v. Frederick, a 2007 case involving a student who displayed the infamous “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. expressed dismay during oral arguments that the high school principal who had disciplined the student was denied qualified immunity by a lower court.

“Your client wants money from the principal personally for her actions in this case,” the chief justice told the student’s lawyer.

Ultimately, Roberts wrote the opinion for the court holding that schools could restrict pro-drug messages without running afoul of the First Amendment. Thus, the court held that it did not need to decide whether the principal was entitled to qualified immunity.

A 2009 Supreme Court decision illustrates a common situation in cases brought under Section 1983. A court may find a constitutional violation but go on to hold that the official who was sued merits qualified immunity because the law was not clearly established at the time of the infraction.

In Safford Unified School District v. Redding, Justice David H. Souter wrote for the court that a search of a middle school girl’s underwear for painkillers violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free from an unreasonable search, “but because there is reason to question the clarity with which the right was established, the official who ordered the unconstitutional search is entitled to qualified immunity from liability.”

Recent School Cases

A search of federal court records reveals that qualified immunity is regularly invoked by educators and officials in a range of school conflicts, a recent number of which involve school resource officers.

In a decision just last month, a federal district judge in Texas granted qualified immunity to a school resource officer who handcuffed and used his body weight to subdue an 85-pound 5th grader with autism who was acting out and would not leave his classroom at his teacher’s direction.

In tossing out the family’s Fourth Amendment excessive-force claim, the judge wrote in Brown v. Coulston on May 29 that prevailing precedent shows “that there is no clearly established law that a police officer may not handcuff or otherwise use his body weight to restrain a student, including a student who has special needs and is repeatedly disruptive, combative, noncompliant, and resisting the officer’s commands.”

Last year, a federal district court in New Mexico granted qualified immunity to a school resource officer who shot his Taser in an attempt to restrain a 13-year-old student with autism who had begun to “shut down” and was wandering away from campus. The judge ruled in Gutierrez v. Albuquerque Public Schools that there was no unconstitutional seizure because the student continued to walk after being tased until he reached the car of a school aide, and thus the officer was entitled to qualified immunity.

However, a federal district judge in West Virginia earlier this year denied qualified immunity to a school resource officer who pinned a 14-year-old student to the floor of a school hallway “with an elbow at his neck and a knee on his back” for about 20 seconds while he searched for the student’s cellphone, which school officials thought might contain nude photos of a female student that had circulated. (A search of the phone’s contents found no such photos.)

Ruling on Jan. 29 in Z.F. v. Adkins, the judge held that the student provided enough evidence that the officer had used excessive force to send the case to a jury, and that “a middle school student posing no imminent risk of harm has a right to be free from excessive force, and that the right was clearly established” when the incident occurred.

In a case involving a school administrator, a federal appeals court ruled in February that a California principal was entitled to qualified immunity against allegations by an undocumented immigrant mother that the principal threatened to call immigration authorities if the mother complained again about the school’s lunch policy.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, said in Doe v. Pasadena Unified School District that the principal’s alleged threat “may be unseemly and unbecoming of a school principal.” But the principal merited qualified immunity because under 9th Circuit case law, “parents did not enjoy a ‘clearly established’ right to be free from a school official’s threats.”

Critiques From Right and Left

These school cases are not among the group of nine pending petitions that ask the Supreme Court to reconsider the qualified immunity doctrine. The high court appeals mostly involve alleged police misconduct, including one case in which a 10-year-old child was shot in the leg by an officer aiming at the family’s barking dog after police had chased an unarmed criminal suspect into a yard. Another involves a 17-year-old youth walking around a neighborhood with a gun who was shot and killed by police who feared, in part, he might be a threat to a nearby school.

In several of the cases, groups across the ideological spectrum have joined in a friend-of-the-court brief urging the justices to reconsider the scope of qualified immunity.

The groups include the Alliance Defending Freedom and Second Amendment Foundation on the right, the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund on the left, as well as the Cato Institute.

Qualified immunity “is a textually and historically baseless doctrine that represents pure judicial policymaking,” said Neily, of Cato. “Our position is that the Supreme Court ought to, in effect, clean up its own mess.”

Joining the advocacy groups are a number of scholars who have raised questions about qualified immunity in recent years. And members of the court have raised concerns about the doctrine.

In a 2017 case, Ziglar v. Abbasi, conservative Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurrence to say that the court’s qualified immunity rulings have gone beyond the common-law immunities that were available when the Section 1983 statute was adopted in 1871.

“In an appropriate case, we should reconsider our qualified immunity jurisprudence,” Thomas wrote.

In a 2018 decision in which the court summarily granted qualified immunity to a police officer involved in a fatal shooting, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented and said there was a “disturbing trend” of the court being quick to intervene to overturn lower-court rulings when officers were denied immunity.

The doctrine was being transformed into “an absolute shield for law enforcement officers,” Sotomayor said in Kisela v. Hughes, in an opinion joined by liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Hutton, of the Education Law Association, said there is room for courts to improve the way they apply qualified immunity doctrine without eliminating it, such as by ruling on more underlying constitutional questions so that officials have a better sense of what has been “clearly established.”

“I would have some caution here,” he said.

'Qualified Immunity’ Explained

What is qualified immunity?

Qualified immunity is a defense that can be raised by government officials—including police officers, teachers, school administrators, and others—when they are personally sued in federal court for allegedly violating the statutory or constitutional rights of another individual. The officials being sued are immune as long as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.

Why is it called “qualified”?

Qualified immunity is distinct, and less protective, than “absolute immunity,” which the law affords to legislators for their legislative actions and to judicial officers—judges and prosecutors—for their official acts. It is also distinct from the various defenses and immunities available to states or local government agencies. Qualified immunity arises when the covered officials are personally sued.

Where does it come from?

Under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, a Reconstruction-era law now known as Section 1983 for its place in the U.S. Code, individuals who believe their federal rights have been violated by someone acting “under color” of law may sue such persons for damages. It took nearly a century for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that police officers could raise a good-faith defense to Section 1983 claims, in the 1967 case of Pierson v. Ray. In 1975, in Wood v. Strickland, the court upheld qualified immunity under Section 1983 for a school board member who was sued over the expulsion of three students. And in 1982, in Harlow v. Fitzgerald, the court overhauled the doctrine and held that government officials performing discretionary functions had qualified immunity based on an objective standard their conduct did not violate clearly established rights that about which a reasonable person would have known.

Why is it suddenly being talked about so much?

In recent years, certain scholars, advocacy groups and even a few Supreme Court justices have raised questions about existing qualified immunity doctrine, with some arguing that it is allowing police and government power to go unchecked and harming public trust in government. The recent death of George Floyd in police custody prompted advocates to renew their arguments that broad qualified immunity leads to a lack of accountability and results in violations of constitutional rights. Coincidentally, the Supreme Court is weighing whether to take up one or more of about 10 cases that ask the justices to reconsider their qualified immunity doctrine.

Why does this matter for education?

As noted above, qualified immunity applies not just to regular police officers on the beat but also to teachers, school principals, superintendents, board members, not to mention school police or school resource officers. Any broad changes to qualified immunity doctrine would apply to them as well.

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