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‘Fight Club’ School Officers Can’t Tank Suit

(CN) - Administrators at the Texas school for the disabled where a "fight club" was discovered years back failed to persuade the 5th Circuit to dismiss claims over the firing of a whistle-blowing psychologist.

Janet Carlow sued four of her former supervisors at the Corpus Christi State Supported Living Center in May 2012 under the First Amendment.

The school, which is run by the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, has a troubled history. In 2009, cellphone videos led police to charge six members of the school staff with staging "fight club" matches between residents.

Carlow said that the school's 1,326 documented incidents of injury, abuse, neglect and/or exploitation of its residents in 2007 and 2008, plus a resident's 2007 suicide, led her to speak out against the school's culture at a public hearing convened by a state representative.

At the hearing Carlow also challenged a plan by state regulators to let convicted sex offenders reside at the school.

Corpus Christi public television aired the hearing in September 2007, giving the public its first notice about the plan to house sex offenders at the school, according to Carlow's complaint.

In another public meeting three years later, Carlow reported that the school had been more focused on paperwork for a Department of Justice investigation than its residents' needs.

The school subsequently bypassed Carlow for a promotion and fired her in September 2011.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos refused to dismiss Carlow's retaliation claims against school director Mark Cazales and psychologist Daniel Rivera, in addition to her First Amendment claims against psychologist Robert Cramer.

The administrators argued on appeal that Ramos incorrectly determined they are not entitled to qualified immunity, which shields government officials from liability if they can prove their actions were "objectively reasonable" in light of the constitution.

A three-judge panel with the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit dismissed the appeal Monday, finding that the disputed issues of fact surrounding the case strip it of jurisdiction.

"Generally, for an interlocutory appeal concerning the summary-judgment denial of qualified immunity, this court has jurisdiction to determine 'the purely legal question whether a given course of conduct would be objectively unreasonable in [the] light of clearly established law,'" the unsigned order states, citing circuit precedent.

"When a district court determines genuine disputes of material fact prevent a determination of that question, however, 'we lack jurisdiction over such appeals of fact-based denials,'" the judges added. "This limited jurisdiction necessarily means 'officials may sometimes be required to proceed to trial even though the ultimate resolution of those factual disputes may show that they are entitled to qualified immunity from liability.'"

Carlow did not respond to an email request for a comment on the ruling.

A fourth defendant, Judy Sutton, director of behavioral health services at the school, persuaded Ramos to dismiss the claims against her.

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