©2010 Brian S. Batterton, Attorney, Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute, Stokes v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, No. 09-1180, 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 5707 (7th Cir. Decided March 19, 2010)
SCHOOL OFFICIALS, SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND QUALIFIED IMMUNITY:
School officials, like police, are often forced to make split-second decisions that affect the civil rights of others, such as students, parents, and school visitors. Additionally, public school officials, like police, are considered government officials for the purpose of civil liability for constitutional violations, and as such, may be sued under Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In order to establish liability under § 1983, a plaintiff must show that (1) a person, (2) acting under the color of law, (3) violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights. As previously stated, a public school official is a “person acting under the color of law” for the purposes of § 1983. All that remains for the making of lawsuit is some allegedly unconstitutional conduct on the part of the school official. The most common suits against school officials concern alleged violations of the First Amendment (free speech), Fourth Amendment (search and seizure of persons and property), and Fourteenth Amendment (Due Process).
Fortunately, the story does not end with the filing of the suit. When a plaintiff files suit against a public school official for a constitutional violation, the school official, through counsel, will likely file a motion for summary judgment and qualified immunity. Both summary judgment and qualified immunity effectively dismiss the case in favor if the defendant school official. Summary judgment is appropriate, when taking the facts in a light most favorable to the plaintiff (the non-moving party), there is no genuine issue of material fact, such that the defendant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In other words, the court views the facts in a light most favorable to the plaintiff and determines that, even if the plaintiffs allegations are true, the defendant school official did not commit a constitutional violation. Therefore, summary judgment in favor of the defendant school official is appropriate.
Qualified immunity, like summary judgment, requires the judge to view the facts in a light most favorable to the plaintiff (the non-moving party). However, when the judge determines that the defendant school official may have violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights, the judge must determine if the law was “clearly established” at the time of the violation such that a reasonable school official would have known he was violating the constitution. Normally, the law is considered “clearly established” if there is factually similar case law decided by the highest court of the state, the federal circuit court of appeals for the appropriate circuit or the United States Supreme Court. If the judge finds that the law was not clearly established, then the defendant school official is given qualified immunity from the suit, and it is effectively dismissed against the defendant. However, if the law is found to be clearly established, then the case is sent to trial for a jury to determine, based upon the facts of case, if a violation occurred.
What if the court determines the law was not clearly established, but the school official acted outrageously in his conduct? In this type of situation, the judge can deny qualified immunity because the school official acted so unreasonably that any other school official in the same position would have known that his conduct lies at the core of what the constitution prohibits.i
AN ILLUSTRATIVE CASE:
Stokes v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently decided Stokes v. Board of Education of the City of Chicagoii which illustrates some of the principles discussed above. Again, it is worth repeating that, for a motion for summary judgment and/or qualified immunity, the court (judge) considering the motion must view the facts in a light most favorable to the plaintiff (the non-moving party). As such, the plaintiff’s version of events is the version considered by the court in rendering its decision even though the actual facts of the case may be somewhat different.
In Stokes, the facts of the case, viewed in a light most favorable to the plaintiffs are as follows:
Nyokia Stokes is the mother of a third grader and kindergartener who attend an elementary school in the City of Chicago. Carnelita Stokes is Nyokia’s mother, and the grandmother of the Nyokia’s children. Ebony Scott is the mother of another student at the same elementary school. “Pony” is the cousin of Ms. Scott who accompanied her to the school on the date at issue. Principal Banks is the principal of the school. Nyokia’s third grade daughter was experiencing an on-going conflict with Scott’s daughter.
On January 22, 2007, Scott and her boyfriend went to the Stokes’ home and threatened Nyokia. The Stokes’ called the police who came to the scene. They advised that the parties they should settle the issue through the school. At approximately 2:30 p.m., on January 23, 2007, Nyokia and Carnelita Stokes went to the school to meet with Principal Banks. While waiting near the principal’s office, Ms. Scott and her cousin, “Pony,” arrived and began screaming at the Stokes for going to the principal about the previous day’s incident. Then Scott and Pony physically attacked Nyokia. They pulled out approximately eight of her braids while screaming at her. Scott and Pony were the aggressors in the altercation. During the altercation, Carnelita also yelled and screamed.
Additionally, a class of approximately thirty kindergarteners, who get released for the day through that office, entered the office area while the fight was taking place. They became very upset and one child was knocked down.
Just as the altercation was coming to an end, Principal Banks walked into the office and observed Scott, Pony and Nyokia involved in a physical altercation. He ordered them to wait in different offices. Carnelita initially refused to leave the office area and continued yelling, some of which was directed to Principal Banks. This prevented him from promptly restoring order to his school. Carnelita eventually complied and the two opposing groups were separated in different offices.
Principal Banks called the police and asked them to arrest Nyokia and Carnelita Stokes and Scott and her cousin, Pony. As the police were arresting the Stokes’, a janitor told the principal that he did not think the Stokes should be arrested. However, other than his opinion, the janitor offered no additional facts to the principal.
The Stokes’ were charged with Disorderly Conduct under Illinois statute. There criminal charges were later dismissed in court. At some point after the charges were dismissed, Principal Banks allegedly told the Stokes’ that he made a mistake and should have only arrested Scott and Pony.
The Stokes’ filed suit against Principal Banks in federal court and alleged that he violated their Fourth Amendment right to be free from arrest that was not supported by probable cause. They also sued under state law for false arrest and other state tort actions. The district court judge found that probable cause existed for the arrest and, as such, awarded Principal Banks summary judgment. The Stokes’ appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Seventh Circuit noted that the issue was not whether the Stokes’ actually committed Disorderly Conduct, but rather if a reasonable person in Principal Bank’s position could have probable cause to believe that the Stokes’ engaged in Disorderly Conduct.
Was there probable cause to arrest the Stokes’?
At the outset, the Seventh Circuit noted five important rules relevant to this case. The rules are as follows:
Probable cause exists if, at the time of the arrest, the facts and circumstances within the defendant’s knowledge are sufficient to warrant a prudent person, or one of reasonable caution, in believing, in the circumstances shown, that the suspect has committed . . . an offense.iii
Probable cause is an absolute bar to a claim of false arrest asserted under the Fourth Amendment and § 1983.iv
A court evaluates probable cause not with the benefit of hindsight, and not on the facts as perceived by an omniscient observer, but on the facts as they appeared to a reasonable person in the defendant’s position, even if that reasonable belief turned out to be incorrect.v
To form a belief of probable cause, an arresting officer is not required, and certainly a complaining witness like Principal Banks is not required, to act as a judge or jury to determine whether a person’s conduct satisfies all of the essential elements of a particular statute.vi
Probable cause involves the exercise of judgment, which turn[s] on the assessment of probabilities in particular factual contexts—[it is] not readily, or even usefully, reduced to a neat set of legal rules.vii
Also relevant is the Illinois Disorderly Conduct statute which defines violation as “knowingly [doing] any act in such unreasonable manner as to alarm or disturb another and to provoke a breach of the peace.”viii
In applying the facts of this case to the rules above the Seventh Circuit noted that, when Principal Banks walked into the office, he observed Nyokia, Scott, and Pony in a physical altercation. He heard screaming and yelling. He saw 30 upset kindergarten children. Scott and Pony were pulling Nyokia’s braids and Nyokia was flailing her arms in an effort to get them to stop. The court then stated that because this appeal involves a motion for summary judgment, they must assume that Nyokia was an innocent victim (the version of events most favorable to the plaintiff) of an assault in this case.
However, they then held:
Nevertheless, the undisputed facts show that a reasonable person in Principal Banks’ position at the time [of the incident] could easily have viewed her as an equal participant in the fight. Accordingly, Banks had probable cause to sign a criminal complaint against Nyokia Stokes for disorderly conduct.ix [emphasis added]
In applying the facts of the case with respect to the arrest Carnelita, the court noted that her testimony does not contradict the statement of Principal Banks that she was yelling hysterically after the fight had ended. Further, her testimony does not contradict the fact that her yelling interfered with Principal Banks’ ability to restore order in the school.
The court then held:
Given Carnelita’s proximity and her family connection to the brawl, her hysterical yelling after it had ended, and Banks’ responsibility to restore order to the school, a reasonable person in Banks’ position could have perceived Carnelita as unreasonably alarming or disturbing others and provoking a breach of the peace.x
Accordingly, the court held the Principal Banks had probable cause to sign a criminal complaint against Carnelita Stokes for disorderly conduct.
Did the principal conduct a reasonable investigation?
The Stokes’ also allege that Principal Banks failed to conduct a full investigation, such as questioning available witnesses, and that if he had, he would have realized that they were not responsible for the altercation and hence, did not commit disorderly conduct.
The Seventh Circuit noted several rules relevant to this issue which are as follows:
The law gives a police officer latitude to make reasonable judgments in light of the circumstances. While an officer may not close his or her eyes to clearly exculpatory facts, the Fourth Amendment does not require an officer with probable cause to arrest to wait while pursuing further investigation.xi
In some situations, an officer may be required to conduct some investigation before making an arrest; in others, an officer may have probable cause for arrest without any need for investigation. Relevant factors include the information available to the officer, the gravity of the alleged crime, the danger of its imminent repetition, and the amount of time that has passed since the alleged crime.xii
Where there is “a lapse of time between the alleged lawbreaking and the arrest,… we find it more likely that some type of investigation–for example, the questioning of witnesses–will be appropriate,” but finding no need for investigation where the alleged crime had just occurred and the officers arrived to find a chaotic scene.xiii
In a case such as this, a school official, as a government official, is afforded the same latitude as a police officer as referenced in the above rules. In applying the above rules to the facts of this case, the court reasoned that, here there was an urgent need for prompt action on the part of Principal Banks. Additionally, while disorderly conduct is not usually considered a serious offense, it can be the prelude to a serious offense, especially in a school around young children. In fact, they noted that one child was knocked down during the fight.
The court then stated:
A full investigation here would have taken a significant amount of time. There were four possible arrestees and dozens of potential witnesses. Many young children were present and were agitated and distressed. Banks’ job was to manage the school and to restore the order that the adults had destroyed. He did not have the time or the duty to carry out a police investigation. There is no evidence that Banks ignored information that would have undermined probable cause… The children and their parents had a right to expect the principal and the police to act swiftly to restore order. The situation jeopardized the physical safety of the students, the staff, and the four women involved. It also threatened the psychological well-being of many young children. It was not unreasonable for Banks to act immediately to remove any further threat of physical or psychological harm, and to ask the police to do so without further investigation at the time.xiv
Therefore, since Principal Banks had probable cause to sign criminal complaints against the Stokes and since the need for prompt action was high, the court held that Principal Banks acted reasonably and was therefore entitled to summary judgment for the Fourth Amendment claims.
THE STATE LAW CLAIMS:
The Seventh Circuit noted that a common element in most of the Stokes’ state law claims (false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution) was the lack of probable cause. Since the court found that probable cause was present for the Stokes’ arrests, the state law claims fail and Principal Banks is entitled to summary judgment.
As to the claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, the first element of the tort was not met – particularly the plaintiffs could not show that Principal Banks’ conduct was “extreme and outrageous.” This is because the principal acted reasonably in his actions.
Therefore, the decision of the district court awarding summary judgment to Principle Banks on all claims was affirmed.
i Moretta v. Abbott, et al., 280 Fed. Appx. 823 (11th Cir. 2008)
ii No. 09-1180, 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 5707 (7th Cir. Decided March 19, 2010)
iii Id. at 10-11 (quoting Chelios v. Heavener, 520 F.3d 678, 686 (7th Cir. 2008))
iv Id. at 10 (citing McBride v. Grice, 576 F.3d 703, 707 (7th Cir. 2009))
v Id. at 11 (citing Chelios v. Heavener, 520 F.3d 678, 686 (7th Cir. 2008))
vi Id. at 12-13 (citing Driebel v. City of Milwaukee, 298 F.3d 622, 645 (7th Cir. 2002))
vii Id. at 13 (quoting Maxwell v. City of Indianapolis, 998 F.2d 431, 434 (7th Cir. 1993))
viii 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/26-1(a)(1)
ix Stokes at 15
x Id. at 17
xi Id. at 18-19 (citing McBride v. Grice, 576 F.3d 703, 707-08 (7th Cir. 2009))
xii Id. at 19 (citing Mason v. Godinez, 47 F.3d 852, 856 (7th Cir. 1995))
xiii Id. at 20 (quoting Sheik-Abdi v. McClellan, 37 F.3d 1240, 1247 (7th Cir. 1994))
xiv Id. at 21-22