No Immunity for Teacher Who Let Stranger Take Student

     PHILADELPHIA (CN) — The Third Circuit denied immunity to a kindergarten teacher for releasing a student to a stranger who sexually assaulted the child, finding that he exposed the girl to obvious danger.
     Qualified immunity protects public officials from “potentially disabling threats of liability,” Tuesday’s ruling notes.
     “But there are exceptions and this is one of those cases,” Judge Julio M. Fuentes wrote for a three-judge panel.
     In January 2013, Reginald Littlejohn allowed Christina Regusters to remove Jane Doe, who was 5 years old at the time, from his class even though Regusters could not produce identification when asked.
     Regusters sexually assaulted the child, who was found the next morning in a park by a sanitation worker who heard her cries, according to court records.
     Jane’s mother, L.R., sued the School District of Philadelphia, its school reform commission and Littlejohn in his individual capacity, claiming Jane was deprived of her 14th Amendment right to bodily integrity under a state-created danger theory of the due-process clause.
     All the defendants moved to dismiss the complaint, claiming L.R. did not state a constitutional violation and Littlejohn is entitled to immunity. A federal judge denied the motion, and they appealed.
     Judge Fuentes, who penned the Third Circuit’s 28-page ruling, upheld the lower court’s decision, finding that L.R.’s allegations satisfied the four elements needed to successfully plead a state-created danger claim.
     That means Littlejohn is not entitled to immunity because of the direct implications his actions had on Jane being sexually assaulted.
     The most contested element in the state-created danger theory—affirmative use of authority creating or increasing danger—was satisfied when Littlejohn allowed Jane to leave with Regusters after Regusters could not produce the required identification, as this action proved Littlejohn’s use of authority created danger or at least rendered Jane more vulnerable to danger, the ruling states.
     Regarding the element of foreseeable and fairly direct harm, Fuentes said that the harm in releasing a 5-year-old to a complete stranger “was obvious.”
     The conscience-shocking conduct element was satisfied by Littejohn’s “conscious disregard of a substantial risk of serious harm,” the judge wrote.
     Finally, the element of a foreseeable victim was “satisfied easily,” Fuentes said, because the school’s release policy that requires adults to provide identification when picking up a child was designed for Jane’s age group.
     Once L.R. sufficiently alleged a violation of constitutional rights, she merely had to establish that Littlejohn knew releasing Jane to an unidentified adult amounted to removing the child from a safe situation and placing her in one that has obvious risks.
     The Third Circuit panel found Littlejohn was aware that allowing one of his students to leave with an unidentified adult could lead to harm, thereby disqualifying him for immunity.
     “Exposing a young child to an obvious danger is the quintessential example of when qualified immunity should not shield a public official from suit,” Fuentes wrote.

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