A U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (IL, IN, WI) three-judge panel has ruled that three school officials who conducted an investigation into allegations that a teacher had sexually abused one of her students were entitled to qualified immunity from the former teacher’s suit that the biased nature of the investigation corrupted the subsequent criminal investigation in violation of her due process rights. The panel also ruled that the chief of police was entitled to qualified immunity from the teacher’s claim of false arrest because he had probable cause to make the arrest.
Gina Purvis was employed by Hall High School District 502 as a biology teacher. When rumors surfaced that she was involved in a sexual relationship with a student, identified as M.R., Principal Patricia Lunn and Superintendent Daniel Oest decided to conduct an investigation, which would be carried out by Lunn and Gary Vicini, dean of students. Lunn was aware that Vicini knew that Purvis had accused him of sexually harassing a female student on a previous occasion, but did not report the conflict of interest to Oest. During the investigation, Vicini threatened M.R. with expulsion and possible criminal punishment unless he admitted to an affair with Purvis. M.R. eventually admitted that he had a sexual relationship with Purvis and provided a detailed written statement. Oest then contacted the the chief of police to report his findings. The chief then contacted the Department Child and Family Services (DCFS). The chief conducted an independent investigation after which Purvis was criminally indicted by a grand jury and arrested.
Purvis subsequently entered into agreement with the school district in which she voluntarily resigned in exchange for $43,000. She was also acquitted on all criminal charges. Purvis than brought suit in a federal district court in Illinois against Oest, Lunn and Vicini alleging that the appointment of a potentially biased individual to investigate the rumors involving Purvis and M.R. fundamentally corrupted the ensuing criminal and DCFS investigation as to amount to a due process violation. Purvis also named the chief as a defendant, claiming false arrest.
The district court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. It found none of the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity, and that there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether Oest, Lunn and Vicini deprived Purvis of due process by giving Vicini a leading role in the school investigation and as to whether the chief had probable cause to arrest the plaintiff.
The Seventh Circuit panel reversed the lower court’s decision. It concluded that Purvis had indeed raised a "genuine issue of material fact as to whether the school’s investigation (1) was fundamentally biased and (2) deprived Purvis of her protected liberty interest in her employment by corrupting the DCFS and police investigations, which ultimately resulted in her losing her job and ongoing ability to work as a teacher."
The school defendants, however, were entitled to qualified immunity, found the panel. It applied the two-step immunity test: (1) whether the plaintiff showed a that the defendant had violated a constitutional right; and (2) whether that right was clearly established at the time the violation occurred. Having already concluded that there was a issue of material fact as to whether Vicini’s bias corrupted the subsequent criminal investigation leading to a due process violation, the panel addressed the question of whether that right was clearly established.
The question it sought to answer was whether a reasonable person in Oest, Vicini or Lunn’s "position would have known he was violating Purvis’s clearly established federal rights in (a) knowingly allowing a biased person to play a leading role in the initial investigation, which ultimately resulted in the biased individual’s threatening the suspected victim into admitting the existence of a relationship, (b) reporting the suspected crime to the police, (c) providing the police with the supposed victim’s written statement, which detailed the specifics of the boy’s alleged affair with the teacher, but (d) not informing the police or DCFS of the conflict of interest and that the student’s statement had been provided only after the potentially biased person exerted considerable pressure, which led the student to drop his denials."
Because Oest was not aware of Vicini’s potential conflict of interest, he could not have been aware that a constitutional right was at stake by appointing Lunn and Vicini to conduct the investigation, as was therefore entitled to immunity. Lunn and Vicini, the panel found, were also entitled to qualified immunity, even though they were aware of the potential conflict of interest. Although it was well established that a fundamentally biased process is no due process and that a person has a protected right to pursue employment in their chosen profession, "there was no federal law clearly establishing that a biased person causing a teacher to be reported to the police, DCFS or similar entity would violate her constitutional rights when that entity would conduct an independent investigation to determine the validity of the accusation against her." Moreover, the police chief was entitled to immunity because the record was clear that he had probable cause to arrest Purvis, even when it is viewed in the best possible light for her.
Purvis v. Oest, Nos. 09-1098/09-1101 (7th Cir. Aug. 2, 2010)
[Editor's Note: In March, A three-judge panel from the Seventh Circuit unanimously ruled that an elementary school principal was not entitled to qualified immunity from female students' equal protection and substantive due process claims based on the principal’s knowledge and covering up of a teacher’s sexual abuse of female students. The panel concluded that for purposes of surviving the principal’s motion for summary judgment, the students had presented sufficient facts alleging that the principal had violated their clearly established equal protection and due process rights by covering up the teacher’s ongoing pattern of sexually molesting female students. A summary of the opinion is available below.]
NSBA School Law pages on T.E. v. Grindle