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§ 1983 Claims Against County School Board - Eleventh Amendment Immunity - Subject-Matter Jurisdiction To Entertain Amended Complaint

Ex parte Wilcox County Board of Education, [Ms. 1170705, Mar. 8, 2019] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2019). This unanimous decision by Justice Mendheim issues a writ of mandamus to the Wilcox Circuit Court directing the court to dismiss state law negligence claims against the Wilcox County Board of Education and Board members alleging that the Board and its members failed to supervise and/or remove a teacher who later assaulted the plaintiff’s minor son. The Court denied the writ as to claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Board and its members in their official capacities. Ms. *38.

In regard to the state law claims asserted against the County Board of Education and its members, the Court applied settled law that “‘county boards of education,’ along with the members of those boards, sued in their official representative capacities, also enjoy the protection of immunity provided by § 14 when the action against them is effectively an action against the State.” Ms. *17, quoting Colbert Cty. Bd. of Educ. v. James, 83 So. 3d 473, 480 (Ala. 2011).

However, as to the claim against the Board and the members in their official capacities under § 1983, the Court concluded that these claims concern “an employment-related decision, i.e., whether the Board should have removed Smiley from his teaching position before he allegedly assaulted R.M. When making such decisions, the Board and the Board members in their official capacities are not ‘an arm of the state’ under the Eleventh Amendment. Therefore, they are not entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity for the § 1983 claim asserted against them ....” Ms. *29.

As to the § 1983 claim asserted against the Board members in their individual capacities, those claims were due to be dismissed because they do “not allege the violation of a clearly established constitutional right or causally link such a violation to the Board members’ conduct, both of which would be required in order to withstand the defense of federal qualified immunity.” Ms. *35.

The Court rejected the defendant’s argument that the entire action should be dismissed because the circuit court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to entertain the amended complaint adding the § 1983 claims. The Court noted that while the original complaint asserted only state law claims against the Board and the Board members, the complaint named the teacher and the principal as to whom no immunity defense applied. Ms. *38. Consequently, the Court concluded that “no jurisdictional impediment existed to prevent Perryman from amending her complaint to name the Board members as defendants and subsequently to assert a federal claim against the Board and the Board members.” Ms. *39.

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