Federal court finds no Fourth Amendment violation when district officials subjected instructional aide to breathalyzer test
Donegan v. Livingston, No. 11-812 (M.D. Pa. July 3, 2012)
Abstract: A Pennsylvania federal district court has granted summary judgment in favor of three district officials, dismissing an instructional aide’s suit that school district officials had violated her First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights when she was detained and subjected to a breathalyzer test. The court concluded that the district officials’ decision regarding the breathalyzer test satisfied the “special needs” exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant and probable cause requirements. The court also rejected the aide’s First and Fourteenth Amendment retaliation claims, because there was no evidence to support her claim that her First Amendment right to freedom of association was violated, and she had abandoned her Fourteenth Amendment claim altogether.
Facts/Issues: Siobhan Donegan was employed by the East Stroudsburg Area School District (ESASD) as an instructional aide. Employed by ESASD since 2001, Donegan was transferred from the high school to Stroudsburg Elementary School in 2010 in order to fill a vacancy, though she was unhappy about the transfer. After arriving at school on December 2, 2010, Donegan was told to report to Principal Irene Livingston’s office to fill out some paperwork. A secretary detected the smell of alcohol on Donegan. Livingston confirmed the smell, and asked Donegan to come into her office once she completed the paperwork.
Livingston then called her supervisor, Irene Duggins, ESASD Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction. Duggins informed Livingston that Donegan had left an “incoherent phone message” with the district office the night before, and instructed Livingston to detain Donegan in her office until further notice. When Livingston asked Donegan if she had been drinking, Donegan replied that she had a couple of drinks the night before. However, she later testified that she never drinks alcohol.
Duggins subsequently called ESASD’s Human Resources office for guidance on how to handle an employee suspected of being intoxicated. After the district’s practice was explained to her, Duggins called the ESASD police chief to arrange to have Donegan transported to a testing facility. Livingston had Donegan wait in the conference room for the chief. The chief and an ESASD female police officer transported her for testing.
The chief later testified that neither he nor the female officer did anything to make Donegan feel she was under arrest, and that he specifically told her they were there solely for transport. While Donegan acknowledged that she was not formally arrested and not forcibly taken, she stated that she believed she would have been forced to go if she had protested. Donegan was agreeable to taking the test to prove she was not intoxicated, and ultimately tested negative for alcohol.
In April 2011, Donegan filed suit in federal district court against Livingston and other school and police officials, alleging that Livingston had fabricated the claim of public intoxication and had her arrested in an effort to embarrass her and force her to quit her job. In her suit, Donegan alleges two claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for unlawful arrest and retaliatory filing of charges, in violation of her First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Donegan also brought a number of state law claims. The Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment of Donegan’s claims.
Ruling/Rationale: The district court granted the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment, dismissing all of Donegan’s federal claims. In doing so, the court declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over, and dismissed, Donegan’s remaining state claims.
Donegan’s Fourth Amendment Unlawful Arrest Claims
Seizure. With respect to Donegan’s claim that she was unlawfully arrested, the parties disagree as to whether that Fourth Amendment violation is one of search or seizure. Notwithstanding, the court found the facts to indicate that Donegan was never officially arrested for any crime, and proceeded to analyze her unlawful arrest claim as an unreasonable seizure. The court stated that whether Donegan’s claim was viewed as unlawful arrest or a “plain unlawful seizure,” the Fourth Amendment inquiry involved two questions: (1) Was there in fact a seizure? and (2) If so, was that seizure reasonable? The court concluded “that the record does not support a finding of probable cause for such a seizure.” The court said that “while the Defendants had reasonable suspicion to detain Donegan, they did not have probable cause to arrest her.”
Search. The Defendants argued that this case should not be viewed as a seizure, but as a “special needs” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. Under this exception, “searches which further a specified governmental need but are ‘not supported by the typical quantum of individualized suspicion, can nonetheless still be found constitutionally reasonable.’” In analyzing the “reasonableness” of the search, the court weighs the “intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against its promotion of legitimate governmental interests.”
Ultimately, the court agreed with the Defendants that the breathalyzer test of a school employee fell within the “special needs” exception to the Fourth Amendment requirement of probable cause, and passes this reasonableness test.
“As teachers inhabit a highly regulated environment which is particularly sensitive to alcohol and drug abuse,” the court found that “teachers have a reduced expectation of privacy in the use of such substances at work.” Identifying the government’s “obviously high” interest in maintaining a safe school environment, the court found that the particular invasion in this case, breathalyzers, was minimal. As a result, the court concluded that “this sort of warrantless Breathalyzer testing of school employees based on reasonable suspicion is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” The court also summarized the decisions of two other circuit courts that agreed with this result. Aubrey v. School Bd. of Lafayette Parish, 148 F.3d 559 (5th Cir. 1998) (random urinalysis of school custodian); Knox County Educ. Ass’n v. Knox County Bd. of Educ., 158 F.3d 361 (6th Cir. 1998) (alcohol testing of teacher).
However, the district court made clear that its analysis was stopping short of determining the constitutionality of ESASD’s unwritten policy of subjecting employees to breathalyzer tests based on reasonable suspicion, because that question had not been raised. Instead, the court emphasized that its analysis was limited to “determin[ing] that this particular search did not violate Donegan’s Fourth Amendment rights.” In finding the search reasonable, the court found the “accompanying seizure based on reasonable suspicion also reasonable under the Fourth Amendment,” and viewed Donegan’s seizure “as an inherent element of the lawful search.”
Donegan’s First and Fourteenth Amendment Retaliation Claims
In rejecting Donegan’s retaliation claims, the court first noted that “[i]n her brief, Donegan abandons any reference to the Fourteenth Amendment and declares only that ‘when adverse action is taken against an employee to intimidate [that] employee’s association with others, the right of fair association of the First Amendment is implemented.’”
The court also found that Donegan failed to establish that her First Amendment right of association had been violated when the Defendants acted on their suspicion that she had been drinking alcohol. First, Donegan failed to establish an “intimate association” violation, as her claim did not identify any intimate relationship that was jeopardized by the Defendants. Second, Donegan failed to establish an “expressive association” violation, because she did not put forward any facts suggesting she engaged in a protected activity of expression, i.e., speech, assembly, petition, exercise of religion.
Donegan v. Livingston, No. 11-812 (M.D. Pa. July 3, 2012)
[Editor's Note: In October 2011, Legal Clips summarized a decision by the Mississippi Court of Appeals in Smith Cnty. Sch. Dist. v. Barnes, which held that a school board’s decision to terminate a teacher after she refused a school district official’s request to submit to a drug test pursuant to the district’s drug and alcohol policy was not arbitrary or capricious. The majority concluded that the school district had reasonable suspicion under the policy to request the teacher to undergo drug testing, and that termination of her employment based on her initial refusal to submit to the test was an acceptable disciplinary action under the policy.]