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Lambert v. Booneville School District

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Aberdeen Division

September 20, 2017

BETTY LAMBERT, Individually, and as Grandmother and Next Friend of C.W., A Minor PLAINTIFF
v.
BOONEVILLE SCHOOL DISTRICT and MICAH MOMENT, In His Individual Capacity DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          NEAL B. BIGGERS, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This cause comes before the court upon the defendants' motion for summary judgment. Upon due consideration of the motion, response, exhibits, and applicable authority, the court is ready to rule.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         This case involves the allegedly unauthorized paddling of a student, C.W., at Anderson Elementary School in Booneville, Mississippi. C.W. was caught fighting during his physical education class and was consequently paddled by defendant Micah Moment, a coach and P.E. teacher at the school. The plaintiff, C.W.'s legal guardian and grandmother, Betty Lambert, brought this suit against Booneville School District (“BSD”) and Moment on March 8, 2016, and filed her Amended Complaint on January 25, 2017, alleging that the paddling constituted a number of violations of federal and state law. Lambert asserted a claim for excessive use of force in violation of the Fourth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process claims on behalf of herself and C.W., a Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claim, a claim pursuant to the Rehabilitation Act, and a number of state law claims.

         The plaintiff alleges that on September 14, 2014, two boys approached C.W. and intentionally knocked him down. According to Lambert, C.W. “got loose and got one of them and started hitting him.” Doc. 43-1, p. 20. The other boy apparently ran. Shortly thereafter, C.W. was taken to the principal's office where defendant Moment allegedly paddled C.W. in front of assistant principal Jeri Potts, who asserts that she checked the school's “no-paddle” list and did not find C.W.'s name listed, although Lambert contends that she had made the school aware she did not want C.W. to receive corporal punishment at school. According to the defendants, C.W. himself was allegedly given the option to receive a paddling or three-day suspension from school, and he chose the paddling. Moment then put his finger through a belt loop on C.W.'s pants, lifted up the pants to prevent the paddle from hitting C.W. in the back or on the legs, and administered the paddling. Potts reported that Moment used the same amount of force to paddle both students he paddled that day.

         Lambert alleges she discovered bruising on C.W.'s buttocks after picking him up from school on the day he was paddled by Moment. Lambert then took C.W. to a medical clinic for examination, but he received no further medical treatment for the bruising.

         The office policy of the Booneville School District does not make provisions for parents to choose a no-paddle option for their children. The schools within the district do, however, make it a practice not to administer corporal punishment if a parent advises the school that such should not be used on their child. As noted, Anderson Elementary maintains a no-paddle list upon which C.W.'s name was not found.

         The defendants have filed a motion for summary judgment on all claims. In response to the defendants' motion, the plaintiff has confessed her Fourth Amendment excessive force claim and her Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claim and has acknowledged that she has no basis for recovery against defendant Moment in his individual capacity. Only Lambert's claims under the Due Process Clause, the Rehabilitation Act, and state law remain.

         Standard of Review

         “The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). On a motion for summary judgment, the movant has the initial burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). If the movant makes such a showing, the burden then shifts to the non-movant to “go beyond the pleadings and . . . designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324. Before finding that no genuine issue for trial exists, the court must first be satisfied that no rational trier of fact could find for the non-movant. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). “Summary judgment, although a useful device, must be employed cautiously because it is a final adjudication on the merits.” Jackson v. Cain, 864 F.2d 1235, 1241 (5th Cir. 1989).

         Analysis

         The United States Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit have addressed Fourteenth Amendment due process in the context of corporal punishment in a school setting and “have consistently held that a student's due process rights are not violated by the administration of corporal punishment if the state affords him adequate post-punishment remedies.” Harris v. Tate County Sch. Dist., 882 F.Supp. 90 (N.D. Miss. 1995) (citing Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651, 675-80 (1977)). The Supreme Court held in Ingraham v. Wright that a student receives all process that is constitutionally due if the state affords the student adequate post-punishment remedies to deter unjustified or excessive punishment and to redress that which may nevertheless occur even though infliction of corporal punishment may transgress constitutionally protected liberty interests. Ingraham, 430 U.S. at 675. The Court stated, “[T]here can be no deprivation of substantive rights as long as disciplinary corporal punishment is within the limits of the common law.” Id. at 676. The Ingraham Court further concluded that “the Due Process Clause does not require notice and a hearing prior to the imposition of corporal punishment in the public schools, as that practice is authorized and limited by the common law.” Id. at 682.

         The Fifth Circuit likewise has noted that provisions of state law affording “adequate traditional common-law remedies for students who have been subjected to excessive disciplinary force” bar a student from raising a substantive due process claim. Moore v. Willis Indep. Sch. Dist., 233 F.3d 871, 876 (5th Cir. 2000). Mississippi law provides adequate remedies for such students in that a teacher can be subject to civil liability and possibly criminal liability for paddling a student. See id.; see also Miss. Code Ann. § 11-46-9(1)(x) (2016); Miss. Code Ann. § 37-11-57 (2013). A teacher does not enjoy governmental immunity when he or she acts in “bad faith or with malicious purpose or in a manner exhibiting wanton or willful disregard of human rights or safety.” Miss. Code Ann. § 11-46-9(1)(x). Section 37-11-57 is a similar statute that applies the same standard as Section 11-46-9(1)(x) and allows a teacher to be held accountable for negligence and/or child abuse when he or she acts in “bad faith or with malicious purpose or in a manner exhibiting wanton or willful disregard of human rights or safety.” Miss. Code Ann. § 37-11-57. These adequate remedies under Mississippi law preclude Lambert from prevailing on a substantive due process claim against the defendants. Moore, 233 F.3d at 876.

         The court also finds that the plaintiff cannot raise a viable due process claim because she cannot show that the paddling was “arbitrary, capricious, or wholly unrelated to the legitimate state goal of maintaining an atmosphere conducive to learning.” Marquez v. Garnett, 567 F. App'x 214, 215 (5th Cir. 2014). Lambert claims that BSD's “practice” of maintaining a “no-paddle” list is akin to a “policy” that arms her and C.W. with due process rights that were violated when C.W. was paddled without Lambert's knowledge. As the defendants aptly note, however, the terms “policy” and “practice” are not ...


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