Thursday, December 6, 2012

Qualified immunity takes the fun out of due process lawsuit

In this due process case, the plaintiff was a tenured school guidance counselor at a Connecticut high school. Then she took on a guidance counselor position at a different high school because she couldn't get along with the principal at the first high school. Then she took on another guidance counselor position at a third high school (Cheney Technical High School) after getting assurances that she could return to the second high school in March 2008.

Before plaintiff could return to the second high school, she was informed in writing that her durational position at Cheney would be eliminated. Plaintiff argued that she had a protected property interest in her position and that the termination letter violated due process because she had no opportunity to be heard before losing her job. She loses the case on qualified immunity grounds.

The case is Coolick v. Hughes, decided on October 24. Under qualified immunity, the defendant wins the case if the law is not clearly established at the time of the violation. This means that even if in hindsight the defendant violated the Constitution, the defendant is off the hook because the case law was not clear at the time and the public official defendant is given the benefit of that doubt. Here, the defendant who fired the plaintiff did not proceed in an objectively unreasonable manner.

The Second Circuit has held that where the plaintiff is subject to a union contract that provides for adequate post-deprivation procedures, that contract is in effect due process. Those adequate post deprivation procedures constitute due process because some neutral arbitrator or decisionmaker can rule on whether you were treated fairly. That is what happened here. The Court of Appeals (Winter, Hall and Hellerstein [D.J.]) notes that plaintiff utilized the grievance procedures under the contract and she actually won that grievance, which reinstated her with back pay and benefits. She did not lose her tenured status even though she had moved around from position to position at the high schools.

But while plaintiff wins her grievance in proving that defendants violated the union contract, she cannot proceed with her Section 1983 claim under the Due Process Clause. (She proceeded with the federal suit in order to recover punitive damages and attorneys' fees). As a constitutional matter, this case falls into a grey area, the Court of Appeals says. Precedent suggests that there was no constitutional violation at all. But, at a minimum, the law was not clear at the time that plaintiff's constitutional rights were violated. This kills the lawsuit on qualified immunity grounds.

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