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Seventh Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Fourth Amendment Excessive-Force Claim Against Wisconsin School District

In Thomas v. Neenah Joint School District, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which has jurisdiction over Illinois school districts) affirmed a federal district court’s dismissal of a parent’s claim against a Wisconsin school district that several school staff members violated the student’s Fourth Amendment rights when disciplining the student. The parent claimed the District had a practice of using excessive force or threats of force against students with behavioral disabilities like her daughter. The federal district court dismissed the lawsuit because the parent failed to plausibly allege a widespread custom or practice in the District of violating students with disabilities’ Fourth Amendment rights. The Seventh Circuit agreed with the lower court that the parent’s lawsuit should be dismissed.

The middle school student has multiple developmental and cognitive disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. In her lawsuit, the parent alleged several school staff members, including the student’s special education teacher and the school resource officer, used excessive force to detain the student on two occasions when she became dysregulated at school, including restraining the student in a prone position. The District called law enforcement in both incidents. The parent also claimed the District sought charges against her daughter and her son in unrelated incidents. In both of those cases, the charges were dropped due to both students being found not competent to stand trial.

Based on these incidents, the parent filed a “Monell claim” against the District, alleging it had a “practice or protocol of utilizing excessive punitive and retaliatory force or threats of force to punish students with behavioral disabilities” and that this practice “appears to have been known and understood” by the school staff involved in these incidents.

A Monell claim stems from a U.S. Supreme Court case (Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978)) in which the Court held that public bodies are “persons” who may be sued under Section 1983 and can be held accountable for the actions of employees if the actions alleged are unconstitutional and pursuant to policy, custom, or practice of the public body. The Seventh Circuit summarized that, “[f]or a Monell claim to survive a motion to dismiss, a plaintiff must plead facts that plausibly suggest that: (1) she was deprived of a constitutional right; (2) the deprivation can be traced “to some municipal action (i.e., ‘a policy or custom’), such that the challenged conduct is properly attributable to the municipality itself”; (3) “the policy or custom demonstrates municipal fault, i.e., deliberate indifference”; and (4) “the municipal action was the moving force behind the federal-rights violation.”

The District moved to dismiss the parent’s lawsuit, arguing that she failed to allege the second Monell requirement—that the District had a widespread policy or custom of using excessive force when disciplining students with behavioral disabilities in violation of the students’ Fourth Amendment rights. The federal district court agreed and dismissed the parent’s lawsuit. The Seventh Circuit affirmed.

The Seventh Circuit held that the parent “failed to plausibly allege that the District had a widespread practice of using excessive force to punish students with behavioral disabilities.” Specifically, the parent’s allegations of the two isolated incidents involving her daughter at school, including allegations that staff communicated to be ‘on the same page,’ and a previous, unrelated incident involving her son, “do not ‘permit the reasonable inference that the practice is so widespread so as to constitute a governmental custom.’” The Seventh Circuit reasoned that the incident involving the son was not relevant and “lend[s] no support to [the parent’s] widespread practice theory.” And specific to the daughter, the parent’s allegations about her treatment “fail to demonstrate a widespread pattern or practice of Fourth Amendment violations.” Thus, the parent failed to establish the requirements for Monell liability.

This case focuses on a specific legal theory and is a fact-specific analysis. But it is an important reminder to review restraint and time out practices, as well as other discipline practices, to ensure a district does not have any practice that is so widespread and “permanent” that it constitutes a custom or practice that could give rise legal claims like the one in this case, or under other federal or State law.

For questions about this case or legal liability concerns related to school district discipline or restraint and time out practices, please contact Jessica Ngyuen or any HLERK attorney in our Students/Special Education or Litigation practice groups.

Source: Thomas v. Neenah Joint Sch. Dist., 74 F.4th 521 (7th Cir. 2023)