The United States District Court for the District of Maryland recently granted a motion to dismiss filed by Gregory L. VanGeison and Cullen B. Casey on behalf of two Kent County, Maryland Board of Education members in a civil rights lawsuit filed by a fellow BOE member. Hanifee v. Board of Educ. of Kent Co., No. RDB-09-2381 (D.Md. 2008) (2010 WL 723772).
The federal lawsuit arose out of an investigation into allegations raised by a BOE employee that Plaintiff Allan T. Hanifee, Sr., an elected member of the BOE, sexually harassed him while he was employed as a school psychologist. The BOE investigated the allegations with the assistance of its counsel and an independent investigator. The independent investigator ultimately concluded that sexual harassment had occurred. The BOE referred the matter to the Maryland State Board of Education for review and required that Mr. Hanifee avoid contact with the employee and discontinue participation in the school system's “Character Counts” program.
As result of the investigation and school board’s actions, Mr. Hanifee filed a twenty-five count complaint against the BOE, individual board members, various employees, the independent investigator and the BOE’s attorneys. Mr. Hanifee claimed that the defendants violated his free speech and due process rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution, invaded his privacy and intentionally inflicted emotional distress.
Mr. VanGeison and Mr. Casey asked that the Federal Court dismiss Mr. Hanifee’s claims as the individual board members possessed legislative and qualified immunity for their actions in handling the sexual harassment complaint. Moreover, Mr. Hanifee’s complaint failed to allege that he had been deprived of any established constitutional right.
The U.S. District Court agreed and dismissed Mr. Hanifee’s complaint against all defendants. The Court stated that Hanifee failed to bring a “colorable First Amendment claim” and that his “due process claims must be dismissed because they are not supported by factual allegations that raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” More importantly, the Court held that the individual board members were entitled to “absolute immunity from § 1983 liability for all actions taken in the sphere of legitimate legislative activity,” which includes a school board’s discipline of one of its members. The board members also possessed qualified immunity as their conduct did not “violate clearly established constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would know.”
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