Kennedy v. Dexter Consol. Schools, 24,988.

CourtSupreme Court of New Mexico
Citation10 P.3d 115,129 N.M. 436,2000 NMSC 25
Docket NumberNo. 24,988.,24,988.
PartiesCrystal KENNEDY and Randy Ford, Plaintiffs-Petitioners, v. DEXTER CONSOLIDATED SCHOOLS, Donald Warren, Kent Perry, Sue Rodriguez, and James Derrick, Defendants-Respondents.
Decision Date14 August 2000

Tandy Hunt, Randy Clark, Stout & Winterbottom, Michael L. Stout, Roswell, for Petitioners.

Simons, Cuddy & Friedman, LLP, Robert D. Castille, Santa Fe, for Respondents.



{1} In March 1992, Dexter High School students Crystal Kennedy and Randy Ford were forced to submit to strip searches, conducted by school officials, in the vain attempt to recover a third student's missing ring. Pursuant to the federal Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1998), a jury awarded compensatory damages against the school district and four school officials, punitive damages against three of the officials, and attorney's fees to Plaintiffs. In Kennedy v. Dexter Consolidated Schools, 1998-NMCA-051, 124 N.M. 764, 955 P.2d 693, the Court of Appeals affirmed the compensatory damages against the school district, but reversed all judgments against individual Defendants on at least one of the following grounds: (1) two of the school officials were entitled to qualified immunity for the strip-to-undergarments search of Randy Ford because while that search violated his rights, those rights were not "clearly established" in 1992; (2) two Defendants deserved qualified immunity because their participation in the search was insufficient to hold them liable; and (3) the jury was improperly instructed that the pre-search detention of the students constituted a separate cause of action. The Court also held that: (4) punitive damages were inappropriate with regard to two Defendants, and (5) attorney's fees were improperly awarded because Plaintiffs' counsel did not supply adequate evidence of the number of hours worked on the case.

{2} We hold: (1) the strip-to-undergarments search of Randy Ford violated his clearly established rights in 1992, and the school officials therefore are not entitled to qualified immunity for that search; (2) where the jury determined that Defendants proximately caused the violation of the students' constitutional rights, the specific involvement of each Defendant is irrelevant to a qualified immunity inquiry; (3) the jury instruction on the pre-search detention was improper but harmless and did not constitute reversible error; (4) evidence presented at trial supported the jury's award of punitive damages; and (5) under 42 U.S .C. § 1988 (1998), attorney's fees cannot properly be awarded absent specific evidence of hours expended. We reverse in part and affirm in part. We reinstate all trial court judgments except attorney's fees, which we remand for further proceedings.


{3} In March 1992, a Dexter High School student reported to her teacher, Randy Ragland, that she was missing a diamond ring. Mr. Ragland and some of the fourteen and fifteen-year-old students in the class searched the room for the ring. When the search failed, Mr. Ragland ordered his students to remain in the classroom, even though the class period had ended, while he conferred with Principal Warren and other school officials. Some of the officials who were discussing now to proceed had conducted a similar strip search three years earlier. Superintendent Derrick, Counselor Perry, and Ms. Rodriguez had been involved in the 1989 blanket strip search of thirty-five Dexter junior high students in an attempt to recover a missing eight dollars. In response to public criticism, Superintendent Derrick, who was then Principal at the junior high school, had promised that no such strip searches would occur again.

{4} In this case, by the time the school officials determined their course of action, the students had been detained in the classroom through another entire class period without being permitted to use the bathroom. Finally, the officials began to ask for volunteers. Thinking that she would have the opportunity to go to the bathroom, Crystal raised her hand. She was escorted to the bathroom by Ms. Rodriguez and a female teacher. As Crystal urinated, she was ordered to keep the bathroom stall open and to lift her blouse while Ms. Rodriguez watched. This, presumably, would have allowed Ms. Rodriguez to observe whether Crystal, an honor student with no history of disciplinary problems, was attempting to dispose of the ring while urinating. When the ring was not found, Crystal was told to leave her pants and underwear down while the two officials inspected her. Crystal then pulled up her underpants and sat down in order to remove her socks and shoes. After standing up again, she was ordered to remove her shirt and pull her bra away from her body. With school officials in front of and beside her, she pulled her bra, exposing her breasts.

{5} Randy Ford, who may not have entered the classroom until after the ring was reported missing, underwent a similar search. Once in the bathroom, Principal Warren and another school official watched from behind as Randy urinated. When he finished, Randy was told not to button up his pants. He followed orders to disrobe, and stripped himself to his boxer shorts. At this point, the two school officials demanded that he pull his underpants away from his waist and shake them, thereby freeing any object he may have had hidden there.

{6} Crystal and Randy sued the Dexter School District and six school employees, alleging that the searches violated their Fourth Amendment rights and that they were entitled to damages under Section 1983. At trial, the jury found that school employees, acting pursuant to school policy, had violated the Plaintiffs' constitutional rights and that those actions were the proximate cause of harm to both students. Accordingly, a judgment was entered against the Dexter School District and five of the individual employees who the jury determined were involved in the illegal searches. The jury awarded each Plaintiff $50,000 in compensatory damages against the school and the individual Defendants. In addition, the jury awarded punitive damages of $50,000 against Principal Warren to both students; $25,000 against Counselor Perry to both students; and $25,000 against Ms. Rodriguez to Crystal Kennedy. The trial court entered judgments accordingly. Finally, after conducting a post-trial hearing, the trial court awarded attorney's fees pursuant to Section 1988.

{7} After affirming the trial court's judgment against the Dexter School District, the Court of Appeals reversed the judgments against the individual Defendants on various grounds. First, the Court determined that the strip-to-undergarments search of Randy Ford did not violate clearly established law in 1992. See Kennedy, 124 N.M. 764, 955 P.2d 693, 1998-NMCA-051, ¶ 41. Second, the Court analyzed the specific involvement of each Defendant and determined that Counselor Perry's limited participation in the searches afforded him qualified immunity from liability for the searches of both Plaintiffs, and that Superintendent Derrick's involvement in the search of Randy Ford was too attenuated to subject him to liability for that search. See id. ¶¶ 44-46. Because they were entitled to qualified immunity, neither Superintendent Derrick nor Counselor Perry could be retried for those searches. See id. Third, the Court set aside the compensatory and punitive damages awarded against all individual Defendants because a theory of liability from which Defendants were qualifiedly immune had erroneously been included in the jury instructions. See id. ¶ 48. The judgments against Defendants Derrick, Perry, Warren and Rodriguez were therefore reversed and remanded. Fourth, the Court overturned the trial court's award of punitive damages against Counselor Perry and Ms. Rodriguez on the grounds of qualified immunity and insufficiency of evidence, respectively. See id. ¶¶ 50-53. Finally, the Court overturned the award of attorney's fees and remanded that issue to the district court for further proceedings. See id. ¶¶ 65-71.

{8} We granted certiorari to discuss the following issues: (1) whether, for purposes of qualified immunity, the strip-to-undergarments search of Randy Ford violated clearly established law in 1992; (2) whether the lesser degree of participation of Counselor Perry and Superintendent Derrick entitles them to qualified immunity for the searches of all the students; (3) whether the erroneous jury instruction constitutes reversible error; and (4) whether the trial court properly awarded attorney's fees. We reverse the Court of Appeals' rulings as to the first three issues, and affirm and remand to the district court on the fourth. We also deem it necessary in our disposition of the appeal to address the issue of punitive damages due to its relationship with the issue of qualified immunity.


{9} Plaintiffs seek damages for the denial of their federal constitutional rights pursuant to Section 1983, which reads, in part:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State ... subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.

State and federal courts share concurrent jurisdiction over Section 1983 claims for the denial of federal constitutional rights. See Martinez v. California, 444 U.S. 277, 283 n. 7, 100 S.Ct. 553, 62 L.Ed.2d 481 (1980)

; Carter v. City of Las Cruces, 1996-NMCA-047, ¶ 5, 121 N.M. 580, 915 P.2d 336. The Court of Appeals did not, nor do we now, disturb the trial court's finding that the constitutional rights of Crystal and Randy had been violated or its resulting award of compensatory...

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