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Schools and Universities/Privacy

School pregnancy test violates student's privacy rights - Gruenke v. Seip, 225 F.3d 290 (3rd Cir. 2000)

Emmaus High School swim team coach, Michael Seip, suspected that team member, Leah Gruenke, was pregnant. Despite Leah's repeated denials of pregnancy, Seip allegedly required Leah to take a pregnancy test. Leah and her mother, Joan, have now sued Seip under 42 U.S.C.S 1983, claiming that the pregnancy test, and the actions surrounding it, constituted an illegal search in violation of Leah's Fourth Amendment rights, unconstitutionally interfered with Joan and Leah's right to familial privacy, violated Leah's right to privacy regarding personal matters, and violated Leah's right to free speech and association protected by the First Amendment. In their suit, Joan and Leah also made claims under Pennsylvania tort law.  The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Seip on the sec 1983 claims on the basis of qualified immunity and dismissed the Gruenkes' state law claims without prejudice.

The facts leading up to the pregnancy are complicated and in dispute.  As accepted for the purpose of the appeal, Seip, several members of the swimming team, and other school personnel suspected that plaintiff was pregnant, based on the physical changes in her body.  Plaintiff denied she was pregnant and further that she had ever had sexual intercourse.  Plaintiff's claims were backed up by her parents and by a physical exam a month earlier by her family physician, who did not notice the pregnancy.  Plaintiff was eventually persuaded/intimidated into taking a home pregnancy test, which was positive.  She still denied the possibility of being pregnant, and took several more tests, some of which were negative.  Seip then asked the team physician whether swimming was a problem during pregnancy was told that it was not.  Seip did not remove plaintiff from the swimming team.  Plaintiff then went to a physician and discovered that she was more than six months pregnant.

The court first reviewed the standard for qualified immunity, finding that: "In sum, an official will not be liable for allegedly unlawful conduct so long as his actions are objectively reasonable under current federal law. See Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986) (observing that "all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law" are protected by qualified immunity). ... [I]t is not sufficient that the right at issue be clearly established as a general matter. Rather, the question is whether a reasonable public official would know that his or her specific conduct violated clearly established rights."

The District court found that administering a pregnancy test is clearly a search under the 4th Amendment, but did not find that a student right to be free of such a search had been clearly established by case or statute.  This Court disagreed, finding that while students, and student athletes in particular, have a diminished right of privacy and can be subjected to drug tests, without evidence that pregnancy endangered either the student or her fetus, the school did have justification for the test.  While the court did not rule out the use of pregnancy tests with proper medical indications, it found that Seip's conduct was not reasonable:

"However, under current precedent, we cannot say that Seip's conduct passes this objective test. Here, the swim coach, an individual without any medical background, allegedly forced Leah to take a pregnancy test. His responsibilities can be reasonably construed to include activities related to teaching and training. They cannot be extended to requiring a pregnancy test. Moreover, a reasonable swim coach would recognize that his student swimmer's condition was not suitable for public speculation. He would have exercised some discretion in how he handled the problem. Seip, however, has offered no explanation that could justify his failure to respect the boundaries of reasonableness."

Based on this, the court reversed the district court's finding that Seip was entitled to qualified immunity.  Using the same analysis, the court also reversed the summary judgment on the plaintiff's claim of invasion of privacy.  The court next analyzed plaintiff's claim of interference with family relations.  While not directly at issue in the case, the court discussed the role of the guidance counsel at some length and reviewed the cases on rights of the parents to information about their children that is held by the school.  The court cautioned that the guidance counselor code of ethics which says they should not tell the parents about things told them in confidence must give way to the parent's constitutional rights. In case, however, the court found that Seip had not clearly violated the cases on interference with familial rights and sustained the grant qualified immunity.  The court also sustained the summary judgment on the claim that the coach violated the plaintiff right of free association under the 1st amendment by limiting her association with other team members.  This is a very interesting case with a useful analysis of the law government qualified immunity of school officials.

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