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Schools and Universities/Governmental Immunity

Brief - School district immunity under 42 USC 1983 - Kirchmann v. Lake Elsinore Unified School Dist., 83 Cal.App.4th 1098, 100 Cal.Rptr.2d 289 (Cal.App. 4 Dist. 2000)

This case poses the interesting issue of whether a public school district legally an extension of the state and thus immune from actions under 42 USC s. 1983.  Norma Kirchmann, an employee of the District, was suspended for 30 days after she anonymously communicated to bidders on a District construction management contract her view that a conflict of interest existed in the selection process. Kirchmann petitioned for a writ of mandate to overturn the suspension. This court concluded Kirchmann's communication was protected by the First Amendment, and the suspension therefore was improper. Kirchmann then sued the District under section 1983. The District demurred, arguing it was an arm of the state and therefore immune from suit under section 1983. The court sustained the demurrer, resulting in this appeal.  In most states, this case would not arise because school districts are local governmental entities, with local funding, and local government does not enjoy s. 1983 immunity.  California schools, however, are state funded and regulated to such as extent that the 9th Circuit has ruled that they have 11th Amendment immunity from suit in the federal courts.

Plaintiff first argues that the 11th amendment only bars suits in federal court.  The court agrees, but points out that the Supreme Court has ruled that unless Congress specifically overrules 11th amendment immunity, then it also applies to suits in the state courts.  The court finds that this is not the case with s. 1983 because it was intended to be a substitute for ineffective state procedures and thus it made little sense to overrule state immunity to allow s. 1983 actions in state courts.  The court then reached the more substantive objection - that the 9th Circuit was wrong in characterizing local public schools as an extension of the state and that California schools were not substantially different from schools in other states that have no s. 1983 immunity.  This is a significant question that also arises with governmental hospitals.

After indicating that, as a state court, it is not bound by the 9th Circuit's characterization of schools as an extensions of the state, the court then listed the factors that must be analyzed to determine the school district's legal status:

". . . whether a money judgment against the entity would be satisfied out of state funds;

the degree of funding the entity receives from the state; whether the entity has independent authority to raise funds;

the extent of state control over the entity's fiscal affairs; whether the entity performs central governmental functions;

whether the entity may sue, be sued, and hold property in its own name;

the corporate status of the entity under state law; the degree of autonomy enjoyed by the entity;

the entity's immunity from state taxation; and

the geographic scope of the entity's operation."

The court noted that the first criteria - who pays a judgment - is often regarded as essential, in that even if the state otherwise controls an agency, there is no 11th amendment immunity if the state does not have to pay a judgment against the agency.  In this case, however, despite finding that the state of California is not responsible for paying judgments against school districts, the court ruled that this one criteria alone is not sufficient to resolve the issue.  The court went on to find that the other criteria were satisfied because of the control the state exercised over school districts and because of precedent that the money the state paid to counties to support the schools remained the property of and under the control of the state.  Based on these criteria, the court found that California schools are an extension of state for s. 1983 immunity.  This case has an excellent review of the applicable law and its reasoning is generalizable to other governmental agencies.

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