T.R. v. Lamar County Board of Education: Qualified Immunity

Date Filed: 10/12/2021

T.R. v. Lamar County Board of Education

Challenging Qualified Immunity

Fourteen-year-old T.R. was nearing the end of her school day at Sulligent High School on August 28, 2017, when she was removed from agriculture class, taken to another part of campus, and forced—twice—by the school principal, Dr. Lisa Stamps, and the counselor, Kathy Dean, to strip naked, bend over, and lift her breasts in front of a window open to public corridors. T.R. was subjected to this search to dispel a generalized suspicion held by the principal and counselor that she might have drugs somewhere on her person, which she did not.  

Represented by the Maxwell & Tillman Law Firm, T.R., acting by and through her mother, Porsha Brock, filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, alleging that Defendants’ conduct violated the Fourth Amendment and constituted an invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress under Alabama law. The District Court granted summary judgment to the Defendants on all three claims. In its decision, the District Court determined that Defendants were entitled to qualified immunity on T.R.’s Fourth Amendment claim; Defendants were entitled to state-agent immunity on Plaintiff’s invasion of privacy claim; and Defendants’ conduct was not one of the three enumerated classes of cases in which Alabama has recognized the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress.  

LDF partnered with Maxwell & Tillman to represent T.R. on appeal. We filed our opening brief on October 12, 2021, arguing that both strip searches of T.R. violated the Fourth Amendment and violated clearly established law, meaning the defendants should not be entitled to qualified immunity. We also argued that the defendants were acting outside their discretionary authority when they searched T.R. because they failed to obtain the requisite superintendent approval before doing so, meaning they cannot invoke the qualified-immunity defense. On the state-law claims, we argued that the defendants were not entitled to state-agent immunity again because they acted beyond the bounds of their authority, and that the court took an inappropriately narrow view of what constitutes intentional infliction of emotional distress under Alabama law when it granted summary judgment to defendants on that claim.  

On February 4, 2022, without holding oral argument, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed on all counts, finding that the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to T.R., showed that the officials believed T.R. had smoked marijuana in class, but had no specific reason to think that T.R. had hidden marijuana in her underwear. As the Court explained, the officials’ erroneous hunch could not justify the grave intrusion of a single strip search, much less two strip searches. In doing so, the Court recognized the particularly extreme nature of strip searches involving children, noting that the expansive view of qualified immunity taken by the district court would “severely diminish the protections afforded students from strip searches” by clear Supreme Court authority.

End Qualified Immunity

End Qualified Immunity Qualified immunity prevents law enforcement from being held personally accountable for violating people’s rights. It allows law enforcement to cross legal lines

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