Qualified Immunity for School Administrators Has Limitations and Administrators May Be Held Liable for False or Misleading Child Abuse Reports

By May 20, 2015 Michelle Todd, News No Comments

In Wenk v. O’Reilly, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (which does not govern Illinois) found that the parents of a 17 year old intellectually disabled student could establish a cause of action for First Amendment retaliation, where the parents alleged that a school administrator filed a child abuse report about the student’s father in retaliation for the parents’ advocacy regarding changes to the student’s IEP.

The case arises out of a number of incidents that initially began during the 2009-2010 school year. At that time, the student’s teachers began documenting instances in which the student stated that her father touched her in her private areas, showered with her, and sometimes licked his daughter in the face, among other things. Subsequently, the parents raised a number of concerns regarding the student’s IEP and her social interactions with peers. The meetings did not always go well, and school staff sometimes found the father to be aggressive. In the fall of 2011, the student’s teachers reported the alleged abuse to a school administrator, who subsequently reported the abuse to the local children services organization. The teachers, however, disputed much of what the administrators stated in the child abuse report.

In June 2012, the parents filed a Section 1983 claim alleging First Amendment retaliation and violations of substantive due process by the school administrator and others. In the district court, the administrator moved for summary judgment asserting that she had qualified immunity. Qualified immunity is the doctrine that protects government officials from liability for civil damages so long as the official’s conduct did not violate statutory or constitutional rights. The district court denied the administrator’s motion for summary judgment, and the administrator appealed.

The Sixth Circuit Appellate Court found that the school administrator violated the parents’ First Amendment rights regarding retaliation. The administrator argued that she was a mandated reporter and that the parents needed to show that the report she filed was materially false in order to establish a First Amendment retaliation claim.

The appellate court noted that “[a]n act taken in retaliation for the exercise of a constitutionally protected right is actionable under §1983 even if the act, when taken for a different reason, would have been proper.” The court concluded that, even if the abuse report was not materially false and there was sufficient evidence to support child abuse, the parent’s claim is actionable if the child abuse reporter made the child abuse report, in part, due to retaliation against the parents.

The Sixth Circuit Appellate Court affirmed the district court’s ruling but declined to impose specific sanctions against the school administrator.

School employees are mandated reporters in the State of Illinois, and knowing when and what to report continues to be an issue for many school employees.

Please contact Michelle Todd with any questions regarding school employee mandatory reporting obligations. 

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