Coollick v. Hughes, USCA, 2nd Circuit, 10-5248-cv
The US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Superintendent of the Connecticut Technical High School System was entitled to qualified immunity in a §1983 action in which she was alleged to have deprived the plaintiff of “sufficient notice” before the elimination of her position as a guidance coordinator at a high school.
The Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that in this instance the Superintendent’s conduct, “even when viewed in the light most favorable to [the plaintiff], did not violate the plaintiff’s clearly established rights."
The court explained that “Qualified immunity protects federal and state officials from money damages and 'unnecessary and burdensome discovery or trial proceedings.'” It, however, is an affirmative defense and the federal or state officials being sued “have the burden of raising in their answer and establishing at trial or on a motion for summary judgment.”
In determining if an official is entitled to a claimed right to “qualified immunity” the courts apply the two-prong test set out in Pearson v. Callahan
, 129 S. Ct. 808.
The first prong addresses the question of whether the petitioner “stated a cause of action.”
The second prong of the test asks did the “[g]overnment official’s conduct violates clearly established law when, at the time of the challenged conduct, the contours of a right are sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he [or she] is doing violates that right.”
In this instance the Circuit Court concluded that the Superintendent’s action “were not objectively unreasonable in light of the law that existed at the time of her conduct.”
Further, the Second Circuit said that it has held that when a plaintiff is subject to a collective bargaining agreement that provides adequate post-deprivation procedures, “such post-deprivation procedures . . . are sufficient to satisfy due process” citing Harhay v. Town of Ellington Bd. of Educ., 323 F.3d 206
The plaintiff , said the court, “utilized the grievance procedures provided for in the collective bargaining agreement and received a favorable decision" restoring her to the status she had prior to the Superintendent’s actions and awarding her back pay and benefits.*
In any event, the court held that there was nothing “objectively illegal, in a constitutional sense,” in the Superintendent’s action and although she may have been incorrect in deciding that the plaintiff did not have certain rights under the collective bargaining agreement, the plaintiff was able to avoid any harm through the very grievance procedures in place to remedy any such deprivation.
Deciding that there was no constitutional bright lines transgressed by the Superintendent in the course of her handling the plaintiff’s termination, the Circuit Court ruled that the Superintendent was entitled to qualified immunity.
* The Circuit Court observed notwithstanding her prevailing in the grievance she filed, the plaintiff “persists with this lawsuit for additional recovery of punitive damages and reimbursement of attorneys’ fees and costs.”
The decision is posted on the Internet at:
Reprinted by permission New York Public Personnel Law
Mitchell H. Rubinstein