Litigating Against Schools: Civil Rights Lawsuits and 1983 Claims

If you have a child in school, if you're a student yourself or work in an academic setting, the school can significantly impact every aspect of your life. When you are unhappy with the treatment you or a loved one is receiving from your school, it might be time to take legal action – especially in the case of discrimination or civil rights violations.

Civil rights violations are illegal – and they can also cause a great deal of emotional, mental, and financial distress in a person's life. Civil rights guarantee individuals the right to receive equal treatment and prohibit discrimination in education, employment, housing, lending, voting, and more. Civil rights laws have evolved through the years to include more protections at the federal, state, and local levels. If you believe that you have been treated unfairly due to your race, nationality, disability, gender, sexual orientation, or another protected characteristic, you might benefit from speaking with an experienced civil rights attorney.

Whether you're a student or an employee, if you believe that you have experienced fewer opportunities or discriminatory decisions at school, you may have the basis for a lawsuit. The good news is section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 allows citizens to hold the government and its employees accountable for constitutional misconduct. Before you take legal action against your school, learn more about filing a civil rights lawsuit or section 1983 claim – as well as why you should consult an attorney before you get started.

What Are Section 1983 Claims?

A section 1983 lawsuit refers to a civil rights case that can be filed when someone's civil rights have been violated. Civil rights guarantee equal social opportunities and protection under the law, regardless of race, religion, sex, gender, or other characteristics. These rights are designed to protect individuals from discrimination and ensure equal opportunities in various settings, including at work and school.

Civil rights cases may be brought in state or federal court, and victims can pursue monetary damages or an injunction, which may prevent the violation from happening again. Section 1983 applies to civil rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and certain federal laws. It does not apply to state laws. Section 1983 gives federal courts jurisdiction to hear civil rights cases and bypass state laws and court systems.

Law and History of 1983 Claims

Congress originally passed section 1983 more than 100 years ago to help African American former slaves defend the constitutional rights they gained after the Civil War. The new constitutional amendments made slavery illegal, established the right to due process of the law, and guaranteed every male citizen the right to vote. Still, many state courts did not enforce these laws due largely to institutional racism. Section 1983 allowed people to bypass state courts and go straight to federal court when their civil rights had been violated, which helped them achieve justice.

Section 1983 had minimal effect until the Supreme Court reexamined it in the 1960s in a case involving a warrantless search of a home by 13 police officers in Chicago. The city of Chicago could not be sued for the incident due to municipal liability, but because the officers were acting “under the color of state law,” they were successfully sued in federal court under section 1983. This created a precedent allowing for civil rights protections under section 1983.

What Must You Prove to Sue a School?

Any type of school can be sued for civil rights violations, including public schools, private schools, elementary schools, high schools, colleges, and universities. In most cases, you must work with a school district to attempt to resolve any complaints before you can sue by filing an administrative complaint.

Additionally, you'll need to prove the allegations in your complaint are true. This includes gathering statements from witnesses, accessing security footage, and documenting any damages you may have suffered. After the district or institution has reviewed and investigated your case, they will likely offer you some sort of remedy. If you are not satisfied with their actions, at that point, you may move forward with suing the school.

Before filing any kind of formal complaint against a school, you'll want to consult an attorney. Knowing the exact process for suing a school can be complicated and overwhelming, and without appropriate legal knowledge, the court could throw out your case altogether. Additionally, an attorney will be able to conduct appropriate and timely research and know how best to move forward with your case to achieve the best possible outcome.

In general, when utilizing section 1983 in legal proceedings, it is important to determine the following:

  1. Has a constitutional right been violated?
  2. Is the person who violated your rights subject to section 1983?
  3. Did this person act “under color of law?” Color of law refers to an appearance of legal power to act that may actually be in violation of the law. For instance, if a police officer acts “under color of law” to make an arrest without probable cause, it is still in violation of the law.
  4. Did this person's actions lead to you facing discrimination or loss of rights?
  5. What defenses to this person's liability exist? This may include protections such as immunity.
  6. Could you collect monetary awards from a governmental entity or an individual based on the ruling in this case?

To help answer these questions, consult an attorney. Your lawyer will be able to help you do the research necessary to decide when and how to move forward with your case.

What Kind of Recovery is Available Under a 1983 Claim?

The outcome of a case involving a 1983 claim can include several types of financial compensation for damages. However, this typically depends on the offense's nature and how egregious the defendant's conduct was.

In general, here are some possible outcomes to expect in a successful case involving a 1983 claim:

  • Actual damages serve as compensation for a loss or injury. In general, the court seeks to restore the injured party to their previous economic position and compensate for emotional distress, loss of reputation, loss of enjoyment of life, and more. There is no limit on the amount of actual damages that can be recovered.
  • Punitive damages are intended to deter defendants from engaging in similar conduct again in the future. This money is paid to the plaintiff in addition to actual damages. Punitive damages cannot be recovered from municipalities or government institutions, but they do apply to individuals working in a professional capacity or acting under the color of law, particularly when they show indifference to the constitutional rights of others. To qualify for punitive damages, you must be able to prove not only that the other party was wrong but that they were consciously aware of their wrongdoing or had bad intentions in their conduct.
  • Injunctive relief refers to a court order requiring a party to act in a certain way in the future – for instance, to refrain from doing a certain harmful act. For example, if your car was damaged in an illegal search by police officers, you could seek a court order requiring the defendant to repair your property.
  • On the basis of the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, the plaintiff can also recover attorney's fees.

Examples of Section 1983 Cases

In a recent case involving section 1983 in Cincinnati, Ohio, the federal court of appeals ruled that a trial court abused its discretion when it refused to appoint counsel to an eighth-grade student who attempted to sue her school for First Amendment rights violations.

The student's parents filed a section 1983 claim after the student's teacher called her a racist and suspended her for expressing that kneeling during the national anthem was “disrespectful to law enforcement and military, and questioning that this violence could have stemmed from music lyrics that said such things as ‘F-the police.'” The teacher's response resulted in the student being bullied and taunted by other students and ultimately contributed to the student attempting suicide.

While the trial court initially dismissed the 1983 claim, the court of appeals' ruling has resurrected the case. Since the court of appeals found the case had merit, it is now back in court, and the student is awaiting the appointment of counsel.

In Bryson v. City of Waycross, the court developed a four-part analysis to determine whether a person's First Amendment rights have been violated. According to the court:

  1. the court must examine the content, form, and context of the employee's speech;
  2. if the speech addresses a matter of public concern, the court then weighs the employee's first amendment interest against “the interest of the state, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees;”
  3. if the public employee prevails on the balancing test, the fact finder determines whether the employee's speech played a “substantial part” in the government's decision to demote or discharge the employee; and
  4. if the employee prevails by showing the speech was a substantial motivating factor in the state's employment decision, the state must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that “it would have reached the same decision . . . even in the absence of the protected conduct.”

The First Amendment is only one of several constitutional rights protected by section 1983. To determine whether section 1983 applies to your case, it is best to speak with an experienced attorney who is familiar with civil rights cases and knows how best to proceed to achieve the optimal outcome in your case.

How to Proceed When Suing a School

If you are wondering whether your lawsuit against your school has merit, consider consulting an attorney who is experienced in civil rights. A knowledgeable lawyer will be able to help you explore your options, including potential liability in your case and whether the defendant could be immune from the lawsuit for any reason.

Taking the time to talk with a lawyer who specializes in your type of grievance will be invaluable. They will be able to use the benefit of years of expertise to help you decide whether you have an adequate case. If you don't have enough of a case for a formal suit, your legal advisor may be able to help direct you toward another way to preserve and protect your rights. If, on the other hand, you do have enough evidence for a case, your legal advisor can help you work from the very beginning to craft a case that is compelling and likely to win.

Remember that your school likely has a very robust team of legal experts working to protect them at all times. Even if you have legal experience yourself, that's a lot to be going up against. Your first step needs to be finding an advisor or attorney who has specific experience litigating against schools—successfully.

Suing a school is definitely not an action you should pursue on your own. Finding an experienced lawyer who knows how to litigate against schools successfully is a crucial part of your strategy. Fortunately, Joseph D. Lento can help.

The Lento Law Firm has a deep understanding of the many issues students and others in academia face. If you or your student faces a specific concern or if you feel your family has experienced unfair treatment, Joseph D. Lento is ready to help you pursue justice. For years, he's helped students and families work towards a successful outcome to find relief. Contact our office today at 888-535-3686 to schedule a consultation.

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If you, or your student, are facing any kind of disciplinary action, or other negative academic sanction, and are having feelings of uncertainty and anxiety for what the future may hold, contact the Lento Law Firm today, and let us help secure your academic career.

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