American Bar Association
Media Alerts
Media Alerts - L.R. v. School District of Philadelphia - Third Circuit
Decrease font size
Increase font size
September 9, 2016
  L.R. v. School District of Philadelphia - Third Circuit
Headline: Kindergarten student deprived of her Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights under a state-created danger theory when her teacher allowed her to leave school premises with a stranger who sexually assaulted her later that day

Area of Law: Fourteenth Amendment, Qualified Immunity

Issue(s) Presented: Is a teacher entitled to qualified immunity or does the state-created danger exception to the Fourteenth Amendment apply when he allows a minor student, against school policy, to leave school premises with a stranger, resulting in the student's sexual assault?

Brief Summary: In January 2013, Defendant Reginald Littlejohn, a teacher at W.C. Bryant Elementary School in Philadelphia, allowed his kindergarten student, "Jane," to leave school premises with Christina Regusters. Regusters did not present identification or evidence that Jane was permitted to leave with her, which is required by school district policy. After leaving the classroom and school premises, Regusters sexually assaulted Jane, who suffered significant physical and emotional injuries.
L.R., Jane's parent and guardian, alleged Jane's Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights were violated under a state-created danger theory when Littlejohn allowed her to leave school with a stranger. In his capacity as a teacher, Littlejohn asserted a defense of qualified immunity, which protects public officials from unlimited liability when serving as state actors. However, a qualified immunity defense will not prevail when state actors violate constitutional rights that they should have been or were aware existed at the time. Qualified immunity claims consist of two-prongs: "(1) whether the plaintiff sufficiently alleged the violation of the constitutional right, and (2) whether the right was 'clearly established' at the time of the official's conduct." The Third Circuit found that Littlejohn was not entitled to qualified immunity as to L.R.'s fourteenth amendment substantive due process claim.

Extended Summary: In January 2013, Defendant Reginald Littlejohn, a teacher at W.C. Bryant Elementary School in Philadelphia, allowed his kindergarten student, "Jane," to leave school premises with Christina Regusters. Regusters did not present identification or evidence that Jane was permitted to leave with her, which is required by school district policy. After leaving the classroom and school premises, Regusters sexually assaulted Jane, who suffered significant physical and emotional injuries.
Jane's parent and guardian, L.R., filed a civil rights lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. ยง1983 against Littlejohn, alleging Jane's Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights were violated under a state-created danger theory. L.R. alleges that Littlejohn caused the danger that "resulted in Jane's physical and emotional harm" by allowing Jane to leave school with an unidentified adult. Littlejohn moved to dismiss, claiming qualified immunity in his capacity as a teacher. Qualified immunity protects state actors from unlimited liability when acting in their official capacity. However, a qualified immunity defense can be refuted when state actors violate constitutional rights that they should have been or were aware existed at the time. The Third Circuit evaluated L.R.'s allegations and Littlejohn's qualified immunity defense using the two-pronged test for qualified immunity: "(1) whether the plaintiff sufficiently alleged the violation of a constitutional right, and (2) whether the right was 'clearly established' at the time of the official's conduct."
In evaluating the first prong, the Third Circuit used a prior Supreme Court decision to clarify that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not require the State to protect private individuals from private actors, but instead protects private individuals from State-created or enhanced dangers.
The Third Circuit analyzed the four elements of the state-created danger exception, as alleged by L.R., finding that a substantive due process violation was sufficiently asserted. Focusing on the fourth state-created danger element initially, "affirmative use of authority creating or increasing danger," the Third Circuit found that Littlejohn did not maintain the status quo of a safe kindergarten classroom for Jane by allowing her to leave with Regusters. The Third Circuit stated that permitting Jane to leave with Regusters without proper identification or verification constituted an affirmative misuse of his state authority in his capacity as a kindergarten teacher and the "gatekeeper" of the safety of his students in his classroom.
Second, the Third Circuit found that L.R. proved that "the harm ultimately caused was a foreseeable and fairly direct result of the state's actions." The Third Circuit reasoned that the possible harm that could result from allowing a kindergartener to leave school premises with a stranger was "obvious" and that experience and common sense made this risk foreseeable. Also, the Third Circuit stated that the harm was a "fairly direct result" of Littlejohn's decision to allow Jane to leave with Regusters.
Next, the Third Circuit concluded that L.R. satisfied the second prong of state-created danger in proving that Littlejohn's release of Jane to a complete stranger shocked the conscience. The Third Circuit found that Littlejohn was deliberately indifferent as he consciously disregarded "a substantial risk of serious harm" by allowing Jane to leave with Regusters. According to the Third Circuit, Littlejohn's behavior shocked the conscience since he was aware of the obvious risk of allowing a kindergartener to leave school with a stranger due to his knowledge of the school policies and his own attempt to abide by them by asking Regusters for her identification.
Lastly, the Third Circuit established that Jane was a "foreseeable victim," because a teacher-student relationship existed between Littlejohn, the state actor, and Jane, the "foreseeable victim of the state actor's conduct." Having satisfied this final element, the Third Circuit concluded that L.R. had successfully alleged Jane's substantive due process rights had been violated, thus satisfying the first prong of the qualified immunity test.
The Third Circuit also concluded that the second prong of the qualified immunity test was satisfied. The Third Circuit stated that Jane, especially since she was a vulnerable five-year old child, had a right to be protected in the safe environment of her classroom and not to be removed into an environment that clearly produced harm. Looking to Supreme Court precedent and other recent judicial decisions, the Third Circuit held that at the time Littlejohn authorized Jane to leave the classroom, this right was clearly established.
In sum, L.R. sufficiently proved a state-created danger exception. By allowing her to leave school with a stranger, Littlejohn clearly deprived Jane of her substantive due process rights, which he knew to exist at the time, precluding his qualified immunity defense.

The full opinion can be found at http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/144640p.pdf.

Panel: Fuentes, Krause, and Roth, Circuit Judges

Argument Date: February 11, 2016

Date of Issued Opinion: September 6, 2016

Docket Number: No. 14-4640

Decided: Affirmed

Counsel: Kerri E. Chewning and Jeffrey M. Scott, Counsel for Appellants; Charles L. Becker, Dominic C. Guerrini, Thomas R. Kline, Tracie L. Palmer, and David C. Williams, Counsel for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Circuit Judge Fuentes

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Author: Katherine A. Osevala

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Prof. Mary E. Lev

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 09/09/2016 01:17 PM     3rd Circuit  

FuseTalk Enterprise Edition - © 1999-2018 FuseTalk Inc. All rights reserved.

Discussion Board Usage Agreement

Back to Top