Just what does it take to lose “qualified immunity”?

It seems like the Daily Dawg has reported a number of cases recently in which a school official avoided personal liability by claiming “qualified immunity.”  Reciting the facts of these cases is often embarrassing to the school official because they usually involve bad judgment calls or worse.  But due to the qualified immunity doctrine, public school officials are not personally liable unless they violate “clearly established law.”  The most common description of qualified immunity describes it as protecting “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”

So what kind of facts might convince a court that an educator was “plainly incompetent” or “knowingly violating the law?”

Christina Scott alleged in her lawsuit that her son was yelled at, cursed and intimidated by Mr. McGuire, a teacher, in front of other students. The suit further alleges that after the mother reported this to the principal things got worse. Here is what the suit alleges:

After school the next day, B.P. [the student] entered a school bathroom to change clothes for baseball practice.  Although the bathroom was in a hallway he did not normally use, Mr. McGuire [teacher] followed B.P. into the bathroom and began yelling insults at B.P.  While B.P. was in a stall undressing with his pants down, Mr. McGuire opened the stall door by force. The door hit B.P. and pushed him back into the toilet and back of the stall, causing B.P. numerous physical injuries.  Mr. McGuire then entered the stall, blocking the door, and continued to curse and insult B.P.  Although B.P. pleaded with Mr. McGuire to stop, McGuire “continued to yell at B.P. while B.P. was defenseless with his pants down.”

The federal district court held that Mr. McGuire was entitled to qualified immunity. The court reasoned that beating up a kid in the bathroom stall violated the law, but that this was not “clearly established” at the time.  However, the 10th Circuit Court reversed that decision.  The Court cited an earlier 10th Circuit decision that established that “at some point of excessiveness or brutality, a public school child’s substantive due process rights are violated by beatings administered by government-paid school officials.”

Beatings administered by government-paid school officials???? Yikes.  The court concluded that the allegations about Mr. McGuire were close enough to the facts of the earlier case that Mr. McGuire should have known that he was violating a student’s constitutional rights by beating him up in the bathroom stall.

So that’s what it takes to convince a federal court that a public school teacher does not deserve the qualified immunity the law provides. The case is Scott v. Mid-Del Schools Board of Education, decided by the 10th Circuit on February 15, 2018. We found it at 2018 WL 898590.


 Tomorrow: Toolbox Tuesday and Law Day!!