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The Fifth Circuit last week held that two Kilgore Independent School District coaches were entitled to qualified immunity from a student’s privacy claims stemming from their alleged disclosure of her sexual orientation to the student’s mother. S.W. was a 16-year-old student who played on the softball team. S.W. alleged that, after a softball team meeting, coaches Rhonda Fletcher and Cassandra Newell lead S.W. into an empty locker room and locked the door. The coaches allegedly questioned S.W. about her relationship with an 18-year-old girl, Hillary Nutt, and accused S.W. of spreading a rumor that the 18-year-old was “Coach Newell’s ex-girlfriend.” According to S.W., the coaches yelled at her, threatened her, and told her she could not play on the softball team until they spoke with her mother. The coaches later met with S.W.’s mother, Barbara Wyatt, and allegedly revealed S.W.’s sexual orientation to her.
Wyatt filed suit on behalf of S.W. against Fletcher, Newell, and the school district claiming violations of S.W.’s right to privacy under the Fourteenth Amendment. The suit claimed further that the district had a policy requiring disclosure of students’ sexual orientation to their parents and failed to train its employees concerning the confidentiality of student sexual orientation. Wyatt also raised a Fourth Amendment claim for unlawful seizure, asserting that the coaches locked the locker room door and ordered her to remain there while they confronted her about the relationship with Nutt. In response, the coaches argued that they were entitled to qualified immunity and the district asserted that Wyatt had not demonstrated a district policy, custom, or practice that led to any constitutional deprivation. The trial court held that the coaches were not entitled to qualified immunity and denied a request for pretrial judgment. The coaches then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

The Fifth Circuit reversed and held that the coaches were entitled to qualified immunity. Qualified immunity protects government officials from personal liability unless the plaintiff can show that the official violated a clearly established statutory or constitutional right. The Fourth Amendment seizure claim failed because “there is simply no clearly established constitutional right – and Wyatt cites none – that protects students from being privately questioned, even forcefully, even in a locked locker room.” According to the appeals court, the Fourth Amendment applies differently in the school context and particularly with regard to student athletes in locker rooms. Citing Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton, the appeals court noted that by choosing to be part of a team, students voluntarily subject themselves to a heightened degree of regulation, even higher than that imposed on students generally. In addition, verbal abuse does not rise to the level of a constitutional violation. So, the alleged threats and intimidation, behind locked doors, by the coaches in this case did not violate S.W.’s Fourth Amendment rights.

The privacy claim, likewise, failed because Wyatt did not allege the violation of a clearly established constitutional right stemming from the disclosure of her sexual orientation to her mother. According to the Fifth Circuit, it has “never held that a person has a constitutionally-protected privacy interest in her sexual orientation, and it certainly has never suggested that such a privacy interest precludes school authorities from discussing with parents matters that relate to the interests of their children.” Nothing in the case law cited by the plaintiffs prohibits school officials from communicating with parents regarding minor students’ behavior and welfare, even if disclosure of a child’s sexual orientation results. The appeals court noted that, in this case, the alleged disclosure was only to the student’s mother and was not discussed with other teachers, staff, or students. Further, the disclosure of S.W.’s relationship was in the interest of the student and “became necessary only when S.W., allegedly influenced by Nutt, violated team rules and policy, which were in place for the benefit and safety of students.”

Because the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights asserted in Wyatt and S.W.’s lawsuit were not clearly established, the Fifth Circuit held that Newell and Fletcher were entitled to qualified immunity. Circuit Judge James E. Graves, Jr. dissented and criticized the court for not extending the right to privacy in personal sexual matters to high school students. According to the majority, however, it concluded only that the right was not clearly established at the time of the events at issue. Further, Wyatt had the burden to show that Newell and Fletcher were not entitled to qualified immunity and she simply failed to do so in this case.
The case is Wyatt v. Fletcher, Dkt. No. 11-41359 (5th Circuit, May 31, 2013).

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