Qualified Immunity Insulated School Board From Paying Damages

CATEGORY: Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: Apr 27, 2022

James Riley owns and operates Riley’s American Heritage Farms (Riley’s Farms), which provides historical reenactments and apple picking. Schools within the Claremont Unified School District frequented Riley’s Farms for field trips for many years.

In 2018, Riley made several controversial Twitter posts to comment on a range of social and political topics. Certain parents discovered these posts and complained to the School Board. The School Board severed its business relationship with Riley’s Farms.

Thereafter, Riley’s Farms sued for retaliation and an injunction of the alleged School Board policy which prohibited district schools from contracting with Riley’s Farms for field trip services.

The U.S. District Court granted summary judgment for the School Board, so Riley’s Farms appealed to the Ninth Circuit. Courts follow many steps to resolve cases that involve the First Amendment and other Constitutional rights. First, the Ninth Circuit had to analyze the retaliation claim. Second, it needed to decide whether the doctrine of qualified immunity shielded the School Board from liability for damages.

In analyzing the retaliation claim, the Ninth Circuit held that the Pickering v. Board of Education framework applied to the relationship between Riley’s Farm and the School Board. The Pickering framework is a legal test that is traditionally used to analyze a government employee’s claim that the government employer has retaliated against the employee in violation of the employee’s First Amendment rights.

This framework has been extended to apply to claims of retaliation between the government and a government contractor.  Courts have reasoned that government contractors who claim retaliation are in an equivalent position and standing as government employees. More recently, the Pickering framework has been even further extended to apply to the relationship between a government employer and a private company performing government services. Because Riley’s Farms is a private company performing government services (field trip services for a public agency), the Ninth Circuit concluded that the Pickering framework applied.

The Pickering framework has two steps. First, the employee or private company performing government services must establish a prima facie case of retaliation. Then, the burden then shifts to the government to demonstrate either that:  1) its legitimate administrative interests in promoting efficient service-delivery and avoiding workplace disruption outweigh the First Amendment interests; or 2) it would have taken the same actions in the absence of the First Amendment conduct. The government is often able to demonstrate either of these options.

In this case, however, the Ninth Circuit held that the School Board did not meet its burden. After Riley’s Farms was able to show a prima facie case of retaliation, the School Board tried to show that Riley’s comments would create disruptions in the school workplace and school curriculum design. The School Board provided evidence of only two complaints from parents. In addition, two other facts let the Ninth Circuit hold that the School Board had not met its burden:  1) no parents had threatened to remove their children from the school, and 2) Riley’s speech occurred on his personal time on his personal Twitter account.

Despite the Ninth Circuit’s finding that the School Board had unlawfully retaliated against Riley’s Farm, the Court also held that the School Board was entitled to qualified immunity. Qualified immunity shields public officials from liability unless the person suing can establish that there was a violation of a U.S. Constitutional right that was clearly established at the time of the officials’ misconduct.

In this instance, the Ninth Circuit held that, at the time of the School Board’s conduct, it was not clearly established that a school district could not cease patronizing a company providing historical reenactments and other events for students because the company’s principal shareholder had posted controversial tweets that led to parental complaints. As such, the School Board was entitled to qualified immunity.

Thus, even though Riley’s Farms hurdled the Pickering framework and established that they were retaliated against in violation of its First Amendment, the doctrine of qualified immunity prevented the School Board from paying damages.

Riley’s Am. Heritage Farms, et al v. Elsasser, and Claremont Unified School District et al (2022) WL 804108.

Note:  This case is an important reminder for public entities that they cannot regulate an employee’s off-duty time except in rare instances when there is a strong nexus between the on and off-duty conduct. Public entities should also be mindful that a government contractor or even a private company performing government services can have Free Speech rights in certain cases.

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