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Gaines v. Wardynski

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

September 21, 2017

LYNDA GAINES, Plaintiff-Appellee,
E. CASEY WARDYNSKI, individually and in his capacity as Superintendent of the Huntsville City Schools, Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama D.C. Docket No. 5:14-cv-00750-AKK

          Before JORDAN and JULIE CARNES, Circuit Judges, and VINSON, [*] District Judge.


         This appeal centers on the level of particularity that is required for qualified immunity analysis in a First Amendment civil rights case. Lynda Gaines, a public school teacher, filed this Section 1983 action against the school superintendent, E. Casey Wardynski, Ph.D., alleging that she was denied a promotion in violation of her First Amendment right to free speech and intimate association.[1] Dr. Wardynski moved for summary judgment, arguing, inter alia, that he was entitled to qualified immunity. The district court disagreed and denied the motion. Dr. Wardynski then filed this interlocutory appeal, and we granted oral argument.

         "Under the qualified immunity doctrine, government officials performing discretionary functions are immune not just from liability, but from suit, unless the conduct which is the basis for suit violates clearly established federal statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Sanders v. Howze, 177 F.3d 1245, 1249 (11th Cir. 1999) (citing Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). Qualified immunity protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate federal law; it does not extend to one who knew or reasonably should have known that his or her actions would violate the plaintiff's federal rights. Jones v. Fransen, 857 F.3d 843, 851 (11th Cir. 2017) (citations and quotation marks omitted).

         Earlier this year, the Supreme Court observed:

In the last five years, this Court has issued a number of opinions reversing federal courts in qualified immunity cases. The Court has found this necessary both because qualified immunity is important to society as a whole, and because as an immunity from suit, qualified immunity is effectively lost if a case is erroneously permitted to go to trial.
Today, it is again necessary to reiterate the longstanding principle that "clearly established law" should not be defined at a high level of generality. As this Court explained decades ago, the clearly established law must be "particularized" to the facts of the case. Otherwise, plaintiffs would be able to convert the rule of qualified immunity into a rule of virtually unqualified liability simply by alleging violation of extremely abstract rights.

White v. Pauly, ___ U.S. ___, 137 S.Ct. 548, 551-52 (2017) (multiple citations, some quotation marks, and alterations omitted).

         Because the district court here defined "clearly established law" at too high a level of generality, we reverse.


         At the time relevant to this case, Gaines was a teacher in the Huntsville City School System, and her father, Robert Harrison, was a local county commissioner. On May 1, 2013, the Huntsville Times published an article in which Harrison made critical comments about the Huntsville City Board of Education (the Board) and its Superintendent, Dr. Wardynski, regarding district rezoning efforts and plans to end federal monitoring under a long-standing desegregation order.[2] The complaint does not allege that Gaines shared any of her father's criticisms or that Dr. Wardynski thought she did. Nevertheless, very shortly after the article was published, Gaines alleges---and for purposes of our analysis we accept as true---that she was denied a promotion to one of three potential teaching positions.[3] She subsequently brought this lawsuit against Dr. Wardynski, alleging that he violated her First Amendment rights by (i) retaliating against her in violation of her right to freedom of speech (based on what her father told the newspaper), and (ii) retaliating against her in violation of her right to freedom of intimate association (based on her close relationship with her father).

         Prior to trial, Dr. Wardynski filed a motion for summary judgment in which he argued, in part, that he was entitled to qualified immunity as it was not "clearly established" that it violated the First Amendment to take an adverse action against a public employee because a family member had engaged in protected speech. The district court denied the motion by written order and set the case for a jury trial. Dr. Wardynski filed this interlocutory appeal and moved the district court to stay the trial pending the outcome of this appeal. The district court summarily denied the motion to stay, saying only that the appeal was frivolous. Dr. Wardynski then filed an emergency motion in this court to stay the approaching trial date, and a previous panel granted the motion.



         To be entitled to qualified immunity, the defendant must first establish that he was acting within the scope of his discretionary authority. Maddox v. Stephens, 727 F.3d 1109, 1120 (11th Cir. 2013). Once that is shown (and it is unchallenged here), the burden shifts to the plaintiff to establish that qualified immunity is not appropriate. Id. To do that, the plaintiff must demonstrate (taking all the facts in the light most favorable to her) the following two things: (1) that the defendant violated her constitutional rights, and (2) that, at the time of the violation, those rights were "clearly established . . . in light of the specific context of the case, not as a broad general proposition[.]" See Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001), overruled, in part, on other grounds by Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223 (2009). "We may decide these issues in either order, but, to survive a qualified-immunity defense, [the plaintiff] must satisfy both showings." Jones, 857 F.3d at 851.

         For purposes of this appeal, we will accept as true that Dr. Wardynski passed Gaines over for promotion because her father had criticized him and the Board about a matter of public concern and that doing so violated her First Amendment rights (the first prong). See, e.g., Adler v. Pataki, 185 F.3d 35, 41-45 (2d Cir. 1999) (holding that retaliatory action taken solely because of the protected speech of a close family member is actionable under the First Amendment). This case turns ...

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