344 F.3d 1325 (11th Cir. 2003), 02-12472, Snider v. Jefferson State Community College

Docket Nº:02-12472
Citation:344 F.3d 1325
Party Name:Snider v. Jefferson State Community College
Case Date:September 15, 2003
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
 
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Page 1325

344 F.3d 1325 (11th Cir. 2003)

Thomas SNIDER, John Ponder, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants,

v.

JEFFERSON STATE COMMUNITY COLLEGE, R.L. Drennen, William Shelnutt, Defendants,

Judy Merritt, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 02-12472.

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

September 15, 2003

Page 1326

James M. Wooten, Birmingham, AL, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

Margaret L. Fleming, Sandra Ingram Speakman, Montgomery, AL, Virginia Michelle Obradovic, Gorham & Waldrep, Birmingham, AL, for Defendants-Appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama.

Before EDMONDSON, Chief Judge, and BARKETT and COX, Circuit Judges.

EDMONDSON, Chief Judge:

Thomas Snider, John Ponder, Tommy Diltz, and Benny Gilcrest ("Plaintiffs"), security

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officers employed at Jefferson State Community College ("JSCC"), brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Judy Merritt, the president of JSCC, and R.L. Drennen, the Dean of Business Operations at JSCC ("Defendants").1

Plaintiffs alleged that between 1983 and July 1998, they and other male employees were the victims of same-sex sexual harassment committed by their supervisor, William Shelnutt.2 At that time, Shelnutt was the Chief of Security at JSCC. Plaintiffs alleged that Defendants knew or reasonably should have known about Shelnutt's conduct, had a duty to prevent this conduct, and failed to stop the conduct in violation of Plaintiffs' right to equal protection under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint based on, among other things, qualified immunity grounds. The district court assumed, for purposes of evaluating the qualified-immunity defense, that Plaintiffs stated a cognizable constitutional claim. The district court concluded that, at the time of the alleged violations, it was not clearly established that same-sex sexual harassment violated the Equal Protection clause and that Defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. The district court therefore granted the motion to dismiss.

On appeal, Plaintiffs assert that sufficient case law existed to establish the contours of their right to be free from same-sex sexual harassment under the Equal Protection Clause and that the district court erred by granting Defendants qualified immunity.

The defense of qualified immunity may be raised and addressed on a motion to dismiss and will be granted if the "complaint fails to allege the violation of a clearly established constitutional right." Chesser v. Sparks, 248 F.3d 1117, 1121 (11th Cir. 2001) (quoting Williams v. Ala. State Univ., 102 F.3d 1179, 1182 (11th Cir. 1997)). Whether the complaint alleges the violation of a clearly established right is a question of law which we review de novo, accepting the facts alleged as true and drawing all reasonable inferences therefrom in plaintiff's favor. Id.

Qualified immunity protects government officials performing discretionary functions from liability if their conduct does not violate "clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 122 S.Ct. 2508, 2515, 153 L.Ed.2d 666 (2002) (citation omitted). The burden rests on the plaintiff to show that qualified immunity is not appropriate. Lee v. Ferraro, 284 F.3d 1188, 1194 (11th Cir. 2002).

We recently--long after the events underlying the present case--declared that the Equal Protection Clause protects against same-sex discrimination. See Downing v. Bd. of Trustees of the Univ. of Ala., 321 F.3d 1017, 1024 (11th Cir. 2003). Accepting Plaintiffs' allegations as true--that Defendants knew or should have known that Shelnutt constantly touched Plaintiffs and other male employees in the Security Department in a sexually inappropriate manner and constantly made sexual remarks and gestures to Plaintiffs and other male employees--such conduct would violate the Equal Protection Clause.3 Therefore, the important question

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is whether this right was already clearly established at the time of the alleged violations.

Officials are entitled to fair warning from the preexisting law that their alleged acts, at the time the acts occurred, were unconstitutional. Hope, 122 S.Ct. at 2515. For a constitutional right to be clearly established in a given case, the right's contours must be so clear that every, objectively reasonable official must understand that what the defendant, in the context of the circumstances of the case, is doing clearly violates the right. See Vinyard v. Wilson, 311 F.3d 1340, 1353 (11th Cir. 2002). That the very act (or something materially similar to it) in question has previously been held unlawful by a court is not always necessary. But in the light of preexisting law, the unlawfulness must be apparent: plain, clear, obvious. Unless the government official's act is so obviously wrong, in the light of preexisting law, that only a plainly incompetent official or one who was knowingly violating the law would have committed the act, the official is entitled to qualified immunity. See Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 106 S.Ct. 1092, 1096-97, 89 L.Ed.2d 271 (1986). "When case law is needed to 'clearly establish' the law applicable to the pertinent circumstances, we look to decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, and the highest court of the pertinent state." Marsh v. Butler County, Ala., 268 F.3d 1014, 1032-33 n. 10 (11th Cir. 2001) (en banc).

Although this Court (1997) and the Supreme Court (1998)--during the time in which the alleged harassment was occurring--had concluded that a same-sex sexual harassment claim was actionable under Title VII against a private employer, this precedent could not fairly put Defendants on notice that their alleged conduct clearly violated a federal constitutional right. See generally Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Servs., Inc., 523 U.S. 75, 118 S.Ct. 998, 1001-02, 140 L.Ed.2d 201 (1998) (concluding that same-sex sexual harassment is actionable under Title VII); Fredette v. BVP Mgmt. Assocs., 112 F.3d 1503, 1510 (11th Cir. 1997) (same).4

Title VII originally was created to reach conduct that the Constitution did not reach; and the statute and Constitution are not always concurrent. See Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229, 96 S.Ct. 2040, 2047, 48 L.Ed.2d 597 (1976) (in disparate impact context stating "We have never held that the constitutional standard for adjudicating claims of invidious racial discrimination is identical to the standards applicable under Title VII, and we decline to do so today"); see also Bass v. Bd. of County Comm'rs, Orange County, Fla., 256 F.3d 1095, 1103 (11th Cir. 2001) (noting that, although the analyses for Title VII and Equal Protection claims are closely related, the Supreme Court in Johnson v.

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Transp. Agency, Santa Clara County, Calif, 480 U.S. 616, 107 S.Ct. 1442, 1452, 94 L.Ed.2d 615 (1987) recognized that it "do[es] not regard as identical the constraints of Title VII and the Federal Constitution"). In 1972, Congress extended the coverage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to allow suits against state and local government employers under the same conditions as private employers. See In re: Employment Discrimination Litig. Against the State of Ala., 198 F.3d 1305, 1319 (11th Cir. 1999). Although Section 5 of...

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