Monday, July 2, 2018
The Fifth Circuit last week declined to dismiss a case against the Houston School District for failure to train its employees on Fourth Amendment student-search standards. The ruling shows the kind of outrageous constitutional violation, coupled with a complete failure to train employees, that could give rise to an unusual and "fortunately rare" failure-to-train constitutional case against a municipal government. Plaintiffs in these cases face a high hurdle, but this challenge shows the facts and legal arguments that just might be able to jump it.
The case, Littell v. Houston Independent School District, arose when a school assistant principal took twenty-two sixth-grade girls to the school nurse for strip searches in order to find $50 that went missing during a choir class. The searches failed to turn up the cash. Two of the girls' mothers sued the District, arguing that its failure to train its employees on Fourth Amendment search standards violated their constitutional rights. "To be clear, the argument is not that the school district's written search policies are facially unconstitutional or that they caused the alleged constitutional violation by themselves. Rather, the 'official municipal policy' on which Plaintiffs attempt to hang Monell liability is the school district's alleged policy of providing no training whatsoever regarding its employees' legal duties not to conduct unreasonable searches." The district court dismissed the case, but the Fifth Circuit reversed.
The Court applied City of Canton v. Harris, the 1988 case setting the standard for failure-to-train cases against municipalities. As applicable here, the municipal government must have "fail[ed] to train its employees concerning a clear constitutional duty implicated in recurrent situations that a particular employee is certain to face." Here,
the school district . . . allegedly provides "no training whatsoever" as to how to conduct a lawful search. This straightforward factual allegation carries straightforward doctrinal consequences. . . . [W]e must credit Plaintiffs' factual allegations and proceed on the assumption that the school district has made the conscious choice to take no affirmative steps to instruct any of its employees on the constitutional rules governing student searches--even though at least some of those employees are regularly called upon to conduct such searches. In short, this case presents an alleged "complete failure to train" of the kind we have found actionable.
The court warned, however, that "in the thirty years since Canton issued, actual cases reaching those extremes have proved fortunately rare"--and that the plaintiffs still may face this uphill challenge on the merits.