Public school officials did not violate a student’s constitutional right to privacy under the Fourteenth Amendment by disclosing information regarding her sexual orientation to her mother, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has ruled.Wyatt v. Fletcher & Newell, No. 11-41359 (5th Cir. May 31, 2013). The Court further ruled that the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure did not bar a student-coach confrontation in a closed and locked room. Consequently, the Court found that the public school officials were entitled to qualified immunity and ordered the federal claims against them be dismissed. 

Background

S.W., a student at Kilgore High School, attended a meeting of her varsity softball team. The meeting was held at an off-campus playing field where practices regularly took place. Barbara Wyatt, as next-friend of her minor daughter, S.W., alleged that during the meeting, the team’s coaches, Rhonda Fletcher and Cassandra Newell, led S.W. into a nearby locker room, locked the door, yelled at her and questioned her about an alleged relationship with Hillary Nutt, who was older than S.W. Thereafter, Fletcher and Newell met with Wyatt to discuss S.W.’s alleged relationship with Nutt. During that meeting, Wyatt alleged the coaches implied that her daughter was a lesbian. The coaches maintained they were obliged to contact Wyatt because rumors regarding S.W.’s relationship with Nutt were causing dissension on the team. Further, they claimed, Nutt was a potentially dangerous, underage user of illegal drugs and alcohol, and any possible sexual relationship between Nutt and S.W. was a valid concern.

Wyatt, on behalf of S.W., sued Fletcher and Newell for violations of S.W.’s rights to privacy under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Fletcher and Newell asked the district court to dismiss the claims based on qualified immunity, but the district court denied their motion. Fletcher and Newell appealed.

Applicable Law

Under the standard of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from civil damages liability when they reasonably could have believed their conduct was not barred by law, and immunity is not denied unless existing precedent places the constitutional question beyond debate. Morgan v. Swanson, 659 F.3d 359 (5th Cir. 2011) (en banc). When deciding whether the right allegedly violated was “clearly established,” the standard in the circuit requires the court to ask whether the law so clearly and unambiguously prohibited the conduct that every reasonable official would understand that what he or she is doing violates the law. To meet this standard, Morgan explains, there must be “controlling authority – or a robust consensus of persuasive authority – that defines the contours of the right in question with a high degree of particularity.” When there is no controlling authority specifically prohibiting a defendant’s conduct, the law is not clearly established for the purposes of defeating qualified immunity.

Claims Dismissed

Wyatt argued the coaches violated S.W.’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure by “seizing” her and yelling at her in a locked room. The appellate court rejected Wyatt’s argument as unsupported by Fourth Amendment case law, particularly as applied to student-athletes who voluntarily subject themselves to regulation by their coaches. Moreover, the Court found that any alleged verbal abuse or yelling that may have occurred did not give rise to a constitutional violation under controlling case law. Accordingly, the Court rejected Wyatt’s Fourth Amendment claim, stating, “[T]here is nothing per se unreasonable about a one-on-one, closed door meeting between coaches and student athletes.”

Addressing Wyatt’s Fourteenth Amendment privacy claim, the Court reviewed extensively the U.S. Supreme Court and federal circuit case law regarding the right to privacy. While recognizing the existence of a general right to privacy (i.e., the right to be free from government disclosure of private facts about its citizens), the Fifth Circuit concluded there was no controlling case law that clearly established a Fourteenth Amendment privacy right prohibiting “school officials from communicating to parents information regarding minor students’ interests, even when private matters of sex are involved.” In the absence of such controlling authority, it held, the coaches were entitled to qualified immunity because there was no clear violation of S.W.’s rights under the Fourth or Fourteenth Amendment.

Circuit Judge James E. Graves dissented. He would have found clear violations of S.W.’s constitutional rights and would have affirmed the denial of qualified immunity to the coaches.

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Wyatt limits the ability of parents and students to sue their school officials for alleged constitutional violations, at least in the Fifth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. It also reaffirms the “in loco parentis” position of the school and its officials. School districts should consider adopting clear policies on communications regarding students with their parents.