Former Student’s Constitutional Claims Against University Were Untimely

CATEGORY: Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: Mar 29, 2022

Kino Bonelli, a Black student, transferred to Grand Canyon University (GCU) in August 2013. On February 19, 2017, Bonelli attempted to enter GCU through its main entrance. When a campus public safety officer asked Bonelli for his student ID, Bonelli held up his ID card and indicated he would present his ID to the officers standing up ahead. After a series of heated interactions, an officer took Bonelli’s student ID and denied him entry onto campus.

A week later, Alan Boelter, GCU’s Student Conduct Coordinator, informed Bonelli that he was being investigated for violating GCU’s code of conduct for failing to comply with the officer’s request for identification. Bonelli explained that he had shown the officers his ID and they confiscated it. Boeotler later retrieved Bonelli’s ID and gave it back to him. Two months later, Bonelli graduated with his undergraduate degree and began a graduate program at GCU.

On July 25, 2017, in the early hours of the morning, Bonelli was studying on campus when a public safety officer asked for his ID. Bonelli complied with the request. The officer searched Bonelli’s name in a database and determined that Bonelli was enrolled at GCU but not living on campus. He told Bonelli that GCU policy did not allow commuter students on campus at certain hours. Bonelli argued that GCU did not have this policy and that he was unaware of this policy. Bonelli offered to leave, but the officer told him he could stay. Bonelli left anyway.

Five days later, GCU’s Campus Safety Supervisor, Michael Martinez, issued a campus-wide “Be On The Lookout,” or BOLO, for Bonelli. The BOLO stated that Bonelli tried to enter GCU despite not being enrolled there and that after refusing to show his ID, Bonelli became disorderedly and remained on campus without permission. The BOLO also stated that Bonelli was a former student and was using his old ID to gain access to campus. Bonelli contacted GCU arguing the BOLO was false and sought to get the BOLO lifted so he can attend class. The BOLO was withdrawn a week after it was issued.

Several days later, GCU informed Bonelli that he had been reported for violations of the student conduct code for hostile and disruptive behavior and for failing to comply with a directive from a school official. Bonelli disputed the allegations, but Campus Safety Manager Steve Young defended the allegations, despite knowing they were false.

On August 24, 2017, GCU issued Bonelli an “official disciplinary warning.” The warning stated that it was Bonelli’s first and only warning and that if additional incidents occurred, he would be subject to disciplinary measures including removal from his graduate program, suspension, and expulsion.

Bonelli spoke to GCU’s Vice President and Dean of Institutional Effectiveness about his disciplinary warning. The Vice President found that Bonelli was credible and that he had suffered civil rights violations and racial discrimination.

On January 20, 2020, Bonelli sued GCU, alleging five violations of his civil rights under federal law. He brought the first three under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for (1) unreasonable seizure of his person and property in February 2017 in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution; (2) unreasonable detention in June 2014; and (3) violation of his First Amendment rights from February 2017. He also alleged two counts of racial discrimination under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 2000d.

The trial court found Bonelli’s claims were time-barred and dismissed his complaint. Bonelli appealed.

The Ninth Circuit agreed with the trial court that Bonelli’s claims were untimely. The statute of limitations for federal civil rights claims is based on the statute of limitations of the state in which the lawsuit is filed. Here, Bonelli filed his lawsuit in Arizona, where the statute of limitations is two years. While state law determines the length of the limitations period, federal law determines when a civil rights claim accrues. Under federal law, a civil rights claim accrues when the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the injury that is the basis of the action.

The Ninth Circuit held that the statute of limitations on both § 1983 claims began to run on February 19, 2017 and July 25, 2017, the date of Bonelli’s encounters with the public safety officers. The Ninth Circuit also determined that the racial discrimination claims accrued beginning August 24, 2017, the date GCU issued Bonelli an official disciplinary warning. The Ninth Circuit found that Bonelli did not claim that GCU engaged in discriminatory acts beyond August 24, 2017, and there is no dispute that Bonelli was aware of his alleged injuries from racial discrimination by this date. The Ninth Circuit rejected Bonelli’s reliance on the Heck v. Humphrey decision, arguing that his claims did not accrue until August 29, 2018, when GCU rescinded Bonelli’s disciplinary warning. Heck is a U.S. Supreme Court case in which the Supreme Court held that a § 1983 claim does not accrue until the conviction or sentence of a state prisoner seeking damages. The Ninth Circuit held that because Bonelli had not been convicted, the holding in Heck does not apply.

Ultimately, the Ninth Circuit agreed with the trial court and held that Bonelli’s suit was untimely.

Bonelli v. Grand Canyon Univ. (9th Cir. 2022) ___ F.4th___ [2022 WL 729277].

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