Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, December 26, 2019


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Ninth Circuit Accords Qualified Immunity To School District Over Use of Restraints


By a MetNews Staff Writer


The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday reversed an order denying qualified immunity to school officials who repeatedly used restraints on a severely emotionally disturbed elementary school student and subjected him to isolation.

The boy, designated “A.T.,” brought the action, through his guardian ad litem, against the Dry Creek Joint Elementary School District and others based on alleged civil rights violations which, he said, began when he was in the second grade at Secret Ravine School. The district is located in Sacramento County.

A.T., diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and bipolar disorder, would sometimes become violent.

Qualified immunity shields government officials where their exercise of discretion did not transgress “clearly established” constitutional rights or protections of federal statute. In a memorandum opinion, a three-judge panel rejected a determination by District Court Judge Morrison C. England Jr. of the Eastern District of California that the conduct complained of by A.T. violated rights that were clearly established as of 2006-09.

District Court’s Order

England said in a June 19, 2018 order:

“It is true that A.T.’s father consented to use of restraint per Secret Ravine’s policies. It is also true that those policies were in accordance with state law and were not per se unconstitutional. Moreover, Defendants accurately state the law that not all statutory or administrative violations necessarily render them ineligible for immunity. But the Court is nonetheless not convinced that Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity under the facts alleged in this case. Entitlement to qualified immunity is a fact-intensive, case-specific inquiry.”

He continued:

“Here, Plaintiff has alleged a minimum of one hundred twelve instances of restraint and containment, and 2,719 minutes of isolation over the course of three years. At the most basic level, then, Plaintiff’s allegations are not necessarily that every individual instance of restraint or containment was unconstitutional but that the totality of the number of such uses of therapeutic containment coupled with Defendants’ failure to inform the parents of what they were doing, as well as their failure to prepare behavioral emergency reports, failure to hold [individualized education program (“IEP”)] meetings, and/or failure to conduct functional analysis assessment reports has resulted in a violation of A.T.’s right to be free from unwarranted or unreasonable seizure at school. That right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violations.”

Ninth Circuit Opinion

Disagreement was expressed by a panel comprised of Circuit Judges Consuelo M. Callahan and Bridget Shelton Bade, along with District Court Judge Stephen R. Bough of the Western District of Missouri, sitting by designation. The opinion says:

“Relatively few cases have examined the contours of a student’s right to be free from unreasonable seizures in the school setting….This is particularly true in the specific context at issue in this case: the use of physical restraints and seclusion by school officials to address the behavioral challenges posed by a severely emotionally disturbed student.

“The courts that have addressed this issue have concluded that, while students have a clearly established Fourth Amendment right to be free from arbitrary and excessive corporal punishment,2 the use of physical restraints and seclusion in school settings—particularly in special education classrooms—is not necessarily unlawful.”

District Court Decisions

Tuesday’s opinion points to two District Court decisions upholding the constitutionality of restraints and seclusion even where it went beyond what was specified in the IEP.

The judges said they know of only one case in which qualified immunity was denied to school officials based on use of restraints. That case, from a district court in Colorado, located in the Tenth U.S. Circuit, was decided in 2011 after the incidents in the present case, and involved a 5-year-old with mental problems who was, daily, strapped to a wooden chair for no purpose.

“The real question in this case, framed at the appropriate level of specificity, is whether clearly established law (in 2006-2009) prohibited Appellants from using restraints and seclusion to address A.T.’s severe emotional and behavioral issues, including aggression toward staff and students, when the specific uses and durations of the restraints and seclusion were often in excess of what was prescribed in A.T.’s IEP. Because the answer to that question is no, even accepting the factual allegations in A.T.’s complaint, Appellants are entitled to qualified immunity….”

The case is A.T. v. Baldo, 18-16366.

 Other Immunity Cases

Also decided Tuesday by the Ninth Circuit was Tuuamalemalo v. Greene, 18-15665, dealing with qualified immunity. Circuit Judge William A. Fletcher wrote for a three-judge panel in affirming the denial of immunity to a police officer who used a chokehold on a man, rendering him unconscious.

“It has long been clear that a police officer may not seize a non-resisting, restrained person by placing him in a chokehold,” Fletcher wrote.

Qualified immunity was also dealt with in a memorandum opinion Tuesday in Hernandez v. City of Huntington Beach, 18-56127. In that case, District Court Judge Andrew J. Guilford of the Central District of California granted summary judgment in favor of Huntington Beach police officers Trevor Jackson and Casey Thomas in connection with the fatal shooting of a man, Steven Schiltz, who, on a soccer field, wielding a sharp stick and acted in a threatening manner.

The opinion, by a 2-1 vote, affirms the judgment on the cause of action by the decedent’s mother under the Fourth Amendment, saying that no case established that excessive force was used under the circumstances. It recites that Schlitz “had moved toward people on the soccer field while bloody, creating a situation that eyewitnesses later described as frightening, especially in light of the fact that children were present.”

The opinion reverses summary judgment, however, under California’s less restrictive standards for battery and negligence.

Senior Circuit Judge Mary M. Schroeder dissented as to the affirmance. She wrote:

“The pertinent facts are clear. There was no deadly weapon….Schiltz was aimed at most with a pointed stick, and was at least five feet from any bystander. The most that can be said is that the decedent frightened bystanders. His conduct did not rise to the level of an immediate threat The officers, in my view, should not be granted immunity on the theory that we do not yet have a decision saying the obvious.”

Qualified immunity was also the subject of Ninth Circuit opinion rendered Monday, dealt with in a separate story on Page One.


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