420 U.S. 308 (1975), 73-1285, Wood v. Strickland

Docket Nº:No. 73-1285
Citation:420 U.S. 308, 95 S.Ct. 992, 43 L.Ed.2d 214
Party Name:Wood v. Strickland
Case Date:February 25, 1975
Court:United States Supreme Court

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420 U.S. 308 (1975)

95 S.Ct. 992, 43 L.Ed.2d 214




No. 73-1285

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 25, 1975

Argued October 16, 1974




Respondent Arkansas high school students, who had been expelled from school for violating a school regulation prohibiting the use or possession of intoxicating beverages at school or school activities, brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against petitioner school officials, claiming that such expulsions infringed respondents' rights to due process and seeking damages and injunctive and declaratory relief. The District Court directed verdicts for petitioners on the ground that they were immune from damages suits absent proof of malice in the sense of ill will toward respondents. The Court of Appeals, finding that the facts showed a violation of respondents' rights to "substantive due process," since the decisions to expel respondents were made on the basis of no evidence that the regulation had been violated, reversed and remanded for appropriate injunctive relief and a new trial on the question of damages.


1. While, on the basis of common law tradition and public policy, school officials are entitled to a. qualified good faith immunity from liability for damages under § 1983, they are not immune from such liability if they knew or reasonably should have known that the action they took within their sphere of official responsibility would violate the constitutional rights of the student affected, or if they took the action with the malicious intention to cause a deprivation of such rights or other injury to the student. But a compensatory award will be appropriate only if the school officials acted with such an impermissible motivation or with such disregard of the student's clearly established constitutional rights that their action cannot reasonably be characterized as being in good faith. Pp. 313-322.

2. When the regulation in question is construed, as it should have been and as the record shows it was construed by the responsible school officials, to prohibit the use and possession of beverages containing any alcohol, rather than as erroneously construed by the Court of Appeals to refer only to beverages containing in excess of a certain alcoholic content, there was no absence of evidence to prove the charge against respondents, and hence the

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Court of Appeals' contrary judgment is improvident. Section 1983 does not extend the right to relitigate in federal court evidentiary questions arising in school disciplinary proceedings or the proper construction of school regulations, and was not intended to be a vehicle for federal court correction of errors in the exercise of school officials' discretion that do not rise to the level of violations of specific constitutional guarantees. Pp. 322-326

3. Since the District Court did not discuss whether there was a procedural due process violation, and the Court of Appeals did not decide the issue, the Court of Appeals, rather than this Court, should consider that question in the first instance. Pp. 326-327.

485 F.2d 186, vacated and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in Parts I, III, and IV of which all other Members joined, and in Part II of which DOUGLAS, BRENNAN, STEWART, and MARSHALL, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which BURGER, C.J., and BLACKMUN and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined, post, p. 327.

WHITE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondents Peggy Strickland and Virginia Crain brought this lawsuit against petitioners, who were members of the school board at the time in question, two school administrators, and the Special School District of Mena, Ark.,1 purporting to assert a cause [95 S.Ct. 995] of action

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under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and claiming that their federal constitutional rights to due process were infringed under color of state law by their expulsion from the Mena Public High School on the grounds of their violation of a school regulation prohibiting the use or possession of intoxicating beverages at school or school activities. The complaint as amended prayed for compensatory and punitive damages against all petitioners, injunctive relief allowing respondents to resume attendance, preventing petitioners from imposing any sanctions as a result of the expulsion, and restraining enforcement of the challenged regulation, declaratory relief as to the constitutional invalidity of the regulation, and expunction of any record of their expulsion. After the declaration of a mistrial arising from the jury's failure to reach a verdict, the District Court directed verdicts in favor of petitioners on the ground that petitioners were immune from damages suits absent proof of malice in the sense of ill will toward respondents. 348 F.Supp. 244 (WD Ark.1972). The Court of Appeals, finding that the facts showed a violation of respondents' rights to "substantive due process," reversed and remanded for appropriate injunctive relief2 and a new trial on the question of damages. 485 F.2d 186 (CA8 1973). A petition for rehearing en banc was denied, with three judges dissenting. See id. at 191. Certiorari was granted to consider whether this application of due process by the Court of Appeals was warranted and whether that court's expression of a standard governing immunity for school board members from liability

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for compensatory damages under 42 U.S.C.1983 was the correct one. 416 U.S. 935 (1974).


The violation of the school regulation3 prohibiting the use or possession of intoxicating beverages at school or school activities with which respondents were charged concerned their "spiking" of the punch served at a meeting of an extracurricular school organization attended by parents and students. At the time in question, respondents were 16 years old and were in the 10th grade. The relevant facts begin with their discovery that the punch had not been prepared for the meeting as previously planned. The girls then agreed to "spike" it. Since the county in which the school is located is "dry," respondents and a third girl drove across the state border into Oklahoma and purchased two 12-ounce bottles of "Right Time," a malt liquor. They then bought six 10-ounce bottles of a soft drink, and, after having mixed the contents of the eight bottles in an empty milk carton, returned to school. Prior to the meeting, the girls experienced second thoughts about the wisdom of their prank, but by then they were caught up in the force of events and the intervention of other girls prevented them from disposing of the illicit punch. The punch was served at the meeting, without apparent effect.

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[95 S.Ct. 996] Ten days later, the teacher in charge of the extracurricular group and meeting, Mrs. Curtis Powell, having heard something about the "spiking," questioned the girls about it. Although first denying any knowledge, the girls admitted their involvement after the teacher said that she would handle the punishment herself. The next day, however, she told the girls that the incident was becoming increasingly the subject of talk in the school, and that the principal, P. T. Waller, would probably hear about it. She told them that her job was in jeopardy, but that she would not force them to admit to Waller what they had done. If they did not go to him then, however, she would not be able to help them if the incident became "distorted." The three girls then went to Waller and admitted their role in the affair. He suspended them from school for a maximum two-week period, subject to the decision of the school board. Waller also told them that the board would meet that night, that the girls could tell their parents about the meeting, but that the parents should not contact any members of the board.

Neither the girls nor their parents attended the school board meeting that night. Both Mrs. Powell and Waller, after making their reports concerning the incident, recommended leniency. At this point, a telephone call was received by S. L. Inlow, then the superintendent of schools, from Mrs. Powell's husband, also a teacher at the high school, who reported that he had heard that the third girl involved had been in a fight that evening at a basketball game. Inlow informed the meeting of the news, although he did not mention the name of the girl involved. Mrs. Powell and Waller then withdrew their recommendations of leniency, and the board voted to expel the girls from school for the remainder of the semester, a period of approximately three months.

The board subsequently agreed to hold another meeting

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on the matter, and one was held approximately two weeks after the first meeting. The girls, their parents, and their counsel attended this session. The board began with a reading of a written statement of facts as it had found them.4 The girls admitted mixing the malt liquor into the punch with the intent of "spiking" it, but asked the board to forgo its rule punishing such violations by such substantial suspensions. Neither Mrs. Powell nor Waller was present at this meeting. The board voted not to change its policy and, as before, to expel the girls for the remainder of the semester.5


The District Court instructed the jury that a decision for respondents had to be premised upon a finding that

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petitioners acted with malice in expelling them and defined "malice" as meaning "ill will [95 S.Ct. 997] against a person -- a wrongful act done intentionally without just cause or excuse." 348 F.Supp. at 248. In ruling for petitioners after the jury had been unable to agree, the District Court found "as a matter of law" that there was no evidence from which malice could be inferred. Id. at 253.

The Court of Appeals, however, viewed both the...

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