Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Trial court needs to give qualified immunity analysis deeper thought

Qualified immunity lets individual government defendants off the hook if they acted reasonably under the circumstances or their behavior did not violate clearly-established law. This analysis normally looks carefully at the defendant's actions to see if he can win the case without a trial. But, sometimes, it's the actions of the trial court which require greater scrutiny.

The case is Distiso v. Town of Wolcott, a summary order decided on November 5. The parent brought this racial discrimination lawsuit, alleging that her African-American son suffered racial harassment by classmates and discrimination by his teachers and the principal, who did not respond properly to the allegations.

These cases are usually brought under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which does not allow for a qualified immunity defense. This case, however, was filed under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, enforced under 42 U.S.C. section 1983, which does carry a qualified immunity defense. In equal protection claims, the court has to apply Gant v. Wallingford Board of Education, 195 F.3d 134 (2d Cir. 1999), the only time the Second Circuit has addressed this issue in a precedential opinion, holding that the student has to show that defendants were deliberately indifferent to known discrimination such that their response was clearly unreasonable. This is a difficult burden for the plaintiff to satisfy.

Whether defendants can invoke qualified immunity in this case under the Gant standard is impossible to tell, the Second Circuit (Straub and Livingston) says, because the district court did not address Gant in rejecting qualified immunity and issued a cursory analysis of the issue. Under the circumstances, defendants get another crack at the apple in seeking qualified immunity. The case is remanded to the district court to try again.

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