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Media Alerts - Kenneth Mann v. Palmerton Area School District - Third Circuit
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September 25, 2017
  Kenneth Mann v. Palmerton Area School District - Third Circuit
Headline: High school football coach entitled to qualified immunity because the right to be free from deliberate exposure to a traumatic brain injury after exhibiting signs of a concussion in the context of a violent contact sport was not clearly established in 2011

Area of Law: Constitutional right to bodily integrity, qualified immunity

Issue(s) Presented: Was the constitutional right to be free from deliberate exposure to a traumatic brain injury after exhibiting signs of a concussion in the context of a violent contact sport clearly established in 2011 so that a high school football coach was precluded from claiming qualified immunity? Was the school system that employed the coach liable for failure to implement effective policies and procedures for dealing with traumatic brain injury?

Brief Summary: Sheldon Mann, a high school football player for Palmerton Area School District, suffered a traumatic brain injury after sustaining two violent hits during a football practice in November 2011. Sheldon's parents alleged Palmerton Area School District and its high school head football coach, Chris Walkowiak, violated Sheldon's constitutional right to bodily integrity under a state created danger theory of liability. Specifically, they asserted that Sheldon's constitutional right to bodily integrity was violated by Walkowiak's instruction for Sheldon to continue practicing after exhibiting symptoms of a concussion and Palmerton Area's failure to implement effective policies and procedures for injured student athletes.

The Third Circuit determined that Walkowiak, a state actor sued in his individual capacity, was entitled to qualified immunity. Although the Third Circuit held that a jury could have found Walkowiak violated Sheldon's constitutional rights, which satisfies the first prong of the qualified immunity inquiry, the Third Circuit failed to find that the second prong was satisfied - that the right was clearly established at the time of the injury. The Third Circuit concluded that no appellate case decided prior to November 2011 held that a coach violates a student's constitutional rights to bodily integrity by requiring a student to continue practicing after experiencing a violent hit and showing signs of a concussion. A failure to satisfy the second prong entitled Walkowiak to qualified immunity.

The Third Circuit also held that the Manns failed to prove their claim against Palmerton Area School district. The Third Circuit determined that since there was no evidence of recurring football head injuries or a deliberate exposure of injured players to continued risk, there was no basis for concluding that a policy or custom of Palmerton Area or its failure to provide more intense concussion training to its coaches caused a violation of Sheldon's constitutional rights. Therefore, the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court's decision to grant summary judgment in favor of Walkowiak and Palmerton Area.

Extended Summary: Sheldon Mann, a high school football player for Palmerton Area School District, suffered a traumatic brain injury after sustaining two violent hits during a football practice in November 2011. Sheldon's parents brought a lawsuit against Palmerton Area School District and its high school head football coach, Chris Walkowiak, asserting that Walkowiak had violated Sheldon's constitutional right to bodily integrity under a state created danger theory of liability. They argued that Walkowiak's exercise of authority in telling Sheldon to continue participating in football practice after exhibiting signs of a concussion after enduring a violent hit violated Sheldon's constitutional right to bodily integrity. The Manns also asserted Sheldon's constitutional rights were violated as a result of Palmerton Area's failure to assure that injured student-athletes were medically cleared to resume participation in the sport, failure to enforce and enact proper concussion policies, and failure to train the coaches on a safety protocol for head injuries.

First, the Third Circuit analyzed whether Walkowiak was entitled to qualified immunity under 4s U.S.C. §1983. A qualified immunity defense relieves state actors sued in their individual capacity from liability when it is proved that their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. Qualified immunity requires a determination of (1) whether the facts alleged by the plaintiff make out a violation of a constitutional right, and (2) whether that right was clearly established at the time of the injury. The Third Circuit concluded that the first prong of the qualified immunity inquiry was satisfied as the Manns had presented sufficient evidence that an injured student-athlete participating in a contact sport has a constitutional right to be protected from further harm, and that a state actor violates this right when the injured student-athlete is required to be exposed to a risk of harm by continuing to practice. The Third Circuit determined that a jury could have found that Walkowiak violated this right when he required Sheldon to continue practicing after sustaining one violent hit and exhibiting behaviors consistent with a concussion.

Next, the Third Circuit analyzed the second prong of the qualified immunity inquiry, whether a constitutional right was clearly established at the time of the injury in November 2011. The Third Circuit concluded that this right was not clearly established, noting that no appellate case decided prior to November 2011 held that a coach violates a student's constitutional rights to bodily integrity by requiring a student to continue practicing after experiencing a violent hit and showing signs of a concussion. For this reason the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court's qualified immunity ruling.

Lastly, the Third Circuit held that the Manns failed to prove their claim against Palmerton Area. Under §1983, local governments may be held liable for their own illegal acts when a plaintiff can demonstrate that the municipality itself, through the implementation of a municipal policy or custom, causes a constitutional violation. The Third Circuit found there was no evidence of a pattern of recurring head injuries in the Palmerton Area football program or that Walkowiak or the coaching staff deliberately exposed injured players to the continuing risk of harm that playing football poses. Therefore, there was no basis for concluding that a policy or custom of Palmerton Area or its failure to provide more intense concussion training to its coaches caused a violation of Sheldon's constitutional rights. The Third Circuit affirmed the District Court's decision to grant summary judgment in favor of Walkowiak and Palmerton Area.

The full opinion can be found at http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/162821p1.pdf

Panel: McKee, Vanaskie and Rendell, Circuit Judges

Argument Date: April 27, 2017

Date of Issued Opinion: September 22, 2017

Docket Number: No. 16-2821

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Katherine A. Osevala

Counsel: Howard J. Bashman, Larry E. Bendesky, Adam J. Pantano, and Robert W. Zimmerman Counsel for Appellant; Thomas A. Specht and Robin B. Snyder, Counsel for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Circuit Judge Vanaskie

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Mark Rahdert

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 09/25/2017 11:46 AM     3rd Circuit  

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