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Qualified Immunity

WAS THE TEACHER’S AIDE ENTITLED TO QUALIFIED IMMUNITY STEMMING FROM CORPORAL PUNISHMENT OF A STUDENT?

Case citation:   Marquez v. Garner     Fed. Appx.        , 2014 WL 1779210 (5th Cir. 2014).

Summary:  C.M. attended elementary school in the South San Antonio Independent School District.  C.M. was seven years old and was severely autistic, physically disabled, and unable to speak. He required constant supervision in a special-needs classroom. This classroom was staffed by one teacher and three teacher’s aides, one of whom was Barbara Garnett.

According to a lawsuit filed by Pauline Marquez on C.M.’s behalf, C.M. picked up a compact disc belonging to Garnett, which was left out on a table in the classroom, and began sliding the disc across the table. Garnett, in reaction, allegedly “cursed and yelled at C.M., grabbed him from behind in a forceful and frightening manner, shoved him to the side and repeatedly kicked [him].” After the incident, C.M. “was scared” and “was not the same person.”   According to the suit, his “development was significantly set back” and he “has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Marquez claimed that she noticed bruises on C.M.’s body, though the complaint does not identify other specific physical injuries. For her conduct, Garnett was charged in state court with assault causing bodily injury. She was later placed on administrative leave and was required to surrender her teaching certificate.

Marquez sued Garnett, the school principal, and the school district alleging 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims against all defendants, assault and battery claims against Garnett, and negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims against Garnett and the principal. The claim against Garnett alleged that, in assaulting C.M., Garnett deprived C.M. of his constitutionally recognized liberty interest to be free from abuse. Garnett asserted that she was entitled to qualified immunity. The district court granted in part and denied in part the motion to dismiss. It held that the state law tort claims were barred by Section 101.106 of the Texas Tort Claims Act.   However, the court held that Marquez had asserted a plausible § 1983 claim against Garnett and that Garnett was not entitled to qualified immunity.  Garnett appealed the district court’s denial of qualified immunity to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Ruling:  The Fifth Circuit reversed, holding that because the student had not stated plausible constitutional claims, Garnett was entitled to qualified immunity.   Qualified immunity shields governmental officials from Section 1983 liability if the official’s acts were objectively reasonable in light of clearly established law at the time of the official’s conduct.  When a defendant invokes qualified immunity, the burden is on the plaintiff to demonstrate the inapplicability of the defense.  Courts evaluate qualified immunity under a two-part test: (1) whether the facts that a plaintiff has alleged make out a violation of a constitutional right, and (2) whether the right at issue was clearly established at the time of defendant’s alleged misconduct.  If both inquiries are answered in the affirmative, the official’s alleged conduct “violated a clearly established constitutional right” and the official is not entitled to qualified immunity.

The United States Supreme Court has held that while corporal punishment in public schools implicates a constitutionally protected liberty interest, the state may impose sufficient post-punishment safeguards to satisfy procedural due process concerns. Corporal punishment in schools is a deprivation of substantive due process when it is arbitrary, capricious, or wholly unrelated to the legitimate state goal of maintaining an atmosphere conducive to learning.  However, injuries sustained incidental to corporal punishment do not implicate due process if the state affords “adequate post-punishment civil or criminal remedies for the student to vindicate legal transgressions.”

Texas affords students post-punishment criminal and civil remedies when teachers impose more than reasonable measures of corporal punishment.  The lawsuit indicated that Garnett acted to discipline C.M.  Garnett was charged in state court with assault causing bodily injury, was placed on administrative leave, and was required to surrender her teaching certificate in response to her conduct. Because Texas provided criminal and civil remedies, and the conduct at issue was corporal punishment, no substantive due process right was violated.  Thus, Garnett was entitled to qualified immunity.

Comments:  Federal courts just don’t want to deal with corporal punishment cases.   The court may have stretched a bit to conclude that this incident was one of corporal punishment, but the message is clear: bring cases like this in state court under state law.