A federal court ruling in a Pennsylvania case found that individual school board members had “qualified immunity” from liability for damages in a First Amendment case brought by a member of the public.
But the Third Circuit Court determined that a hearing must be held as to whether the school board itself benefitted from the same qualified immunity, and remanded the case back to District Court to conduct proceedings.
The case, Barna v. Bd. of Sch. Dirs. of the Panther Valley Sch. Dist. – United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, was brought in April 2012 by a resident of Panther Valley, Pa., who filed a lawsuit against the Panther Valley School Board in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
The suit, brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleged that the board violated the resident’s First Amendment rights when it banned him from attending board meetings–as a member of the public–due to his threatening and disruptive behavior at meetings. The essential facts of the matter are undisputed: The plaintiff attended several board meetings, and repeatedly acted in a threatening and disruptive manner, before he was eventually banned from school board meetings, extracurricular activities and the school campus itself.
The school board filed a motion for summary judgment asking the judge to accept the facts as true and decide the matter on the law without going to trial. The court granted the board’s motion, finding that the board members individually, as well as the board itself in its official capacity, were immune from liability for damages based on the concept of qualified immunity. Qualified immunity is a defense that shields government agents from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.
The matter was appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which also exercises federal jurisdiction over certain New Jersey matters. The court upheld the qualified immunity of the individual board members, but reminded the district court that “municipalities do not enjoy qualified immunity from suit for damages under Title 1983….” Owens v. City of Independence, 445 U.S. 622, 100 (1980). As such, the Third Circuit remanded the portion of the case involving the board itself back to the district court and required them to conduct proceedings consistent with its finding.
The takeaway from the case is this: School boards, as creatures of the state, (in contrast to the board members in their individual capacities), should be aware that they are not entitled to automatic qualified immunity from lawsuits for damages in matters alleging constitutional violations. For specific advice, school boards should consult with their board attorneys.