Panzarella v. Boyle

Decision Date22 December 1975
Docket NumberCiv. A. No. 74-241.
Citation406 F. Supp. 787
PartiesJoseph PANZARELLA, a minor p. p. a. Blanche Panzarella, his next friend and parent, Plaintiffs, v. John K. BOYLE, Individually and as Superintendent of Schools of the Smithfield School System, et al.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Rhode Island



Barry Kusinitz, and Donald Coblentz, of R. I. Legal Services, Providence, R. I., for plaintiffs.

John H. Hines, Jr., Providence, R. I., for defendants.


PETTINE, Chief Judge.

Plaintiff Joseph Panzarella, a minor, brings this action through his mother for injunctive relief and damages of $12,000 based upon his claim that the defendants twice suspended him from Smithfield High School in 1973 and 1974 without providing him the procedural due process required by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The defendants collectively have filed a motion to dismiss, contending that: (1) the Court lacks jurisdiction over the defendant Smithfield School Committee ("the Committee") and each of its members, also individually named as defendants; (2) plaintiff's action is premature because he has not exhausted the administrative remedies available under Rhode Island General Laws § 16-39-2; and (3) the School Committee is immune from liability for the monetary relief sought because plaintiff has failed to comply with the notice provisions of R.I.G.L. § 45-15-5. See notes 9, 11, infra.


The defendants assert in their motion to dismiss that the Court lacks jurisdiction over the School Committee as a unit and that, as a result, also lacks jurisdiction over its individual members.

Despite the defendants' contention that jurisdiction over the individual Committee members is dependent upon jurisdiction over the Committee, it is clear that these individuals are "persons" within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 19831 and amenable to suit for both injunctive relief and damages under 28 U.S.C. § 1343.2Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 81 S.Ct. 473, 5 L.Ed.2d 492 (1961). See also Wood v. Strickland, 420 U.S. 308, 95 S.Ct. 992, 43 L.Ed.2d 214 (1975). As a result, the Court has jurisdiction over the individual School Committee members under 28 U.S.C. § 1343, and that aspect of the defendants' motion to dismiss must be denied.3

Jurisdiction over the School Committee as an entity presents a somewhat thornier problem. It is true that a municipality is not subject to suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and its jurisdictional counterpart, 28 U.S.C. § 1343, because it is not a "person" within the meaning of § 1983. City of Kenosha v. Bruno, 412 U.S. 507, 93 S.Ct. 2222, 37 L.Ed.2d 109 (1973); Monroe v. Pape, supra. There is much authority to support the proposition that a school committee, as a political subdivision of a state, is likewise not a "person" within the meaning of § 1983.4 The plaintiff does not urge a contrary ruling upon the Court, but instead contends that the Court has general federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 13315 to hear the claim against the Committee since his claim is based upon an alleged constitutional deprivation with consequent damages in excess of $10,000. To resolve this issue, we must consider whether plaintiff has met each of the prerequisites for general federal question jurisdiction as provided in 28 U.S.C. § 1331(a).

First, has a constitutional deprivation been alleged? In his complaint, the plaintiff alleges that he was subjected to two lengthy, summary suspensions from Smithfield High School in violation of his constitutional right to procedural due process as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. There can be no question that this claim presents a substantial federal question arising under the Constitution. In Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565, 95 S.Ct. 729, 42 L.Ed.2d 725 (1975), the United States Supreme Court held that a suspension of ten days or less constituted a deprivation of a student's "property" interest in education and "liberty" interest in reputation sufficient to require protection under the Due Process Clause. The suspensions at issue in the instant case are alleged to have continued in excess of five months and one month, respectively. Summary suspensions of this duration, if proved at trial, would obviously exceed in severity the constitutional deprivations recognized in Goss.

Second, is this constitutional deprivation cognizable under 28 U.S.C. § 1331? In Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, 403 U.S. 388, 91 S.Ct. 1999, 29 L.Ed.2d 619 (1971), the Supreme Court ruled that the plaintiff therein had sufficiently stated a claim under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 in alleging that federal officials had violated his Fourth Amendment rights. In a letter to the parties of April 22, 1975, this Court raised the question whether the cause of action recognized in Bivens is limited to alleged violations of the Fourth Amendment.6

In response, the plaintiff has cited a long list of cases7 to support his highly persuasive and logical argument that the construction given to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 in Bivens properly applies to any alleged violation of a constitutionally protected interest not specifically excluded by other Congressional enactment. Cf. Weinberger v. Salfi, 422 U.S. 749, 95 S.Ct. 2457, 45 L.Ed.2d 522 (1975); Milo Community Hospital v. Weinberger, 525 F.2d 144 (1st Cir. 1975). I will not add to the length of this opinion by retracing the analyses of these cases. It suffices to state here that the Court has carefully examined the Supreme Court's analysis in Bivens and Bell v. Hood, 327 U.S. 678, 66 S.Ct. 773, 90 L.Ed. 939 (1946), and is convinced that only the broad reading given Bivens in the decisions cited in note 7, supra, accurately reflects Bivens' underlying rationale. Justice Harlan's characterization of the issue presented in Bivens as addressing the "power of federal courts to award damages for violation of `constitutionally protected interests'" such as the Fourth Amendment, id. 403 U.S. at 399, 91 S.Ct. at 2006 (Harlan, J., concurring in the judgment), is particularly instructive that the cause of action for deprivation of a constitutionally protected interest recognized in Bivens is not restricted to the Fourth Amendment:

"The judiciary has a particular responsibility to assure the vindication of constitutional interests such as those embraced by the Fourth Amendment. To be sure, `it must be remembered that legislatures are ultimate guardians of the liberties and welfare of the people in quite as great a degree as the courts.' Missouri, Kansas & Texas R. Co. of Texas v. May, 194 U.S. 267, 270, 24 S.Ct. 638, 639, 48 L.Ed. 971 (1904). But it must also be recognized that the Bill of Rights is particularly intended to vindicate the interests of the individual in the face of the popular will as expressed in legislative majorities; at the very least, it strikes me as no more appropriate to await express congressional authorization of traditional judicial relief with regard to these legal interests than with respect to interests protected by federal statutes." Id. at 407, 91 S.Ct. at 2010 (Harlan, J., concurring in judgment).

None of the decisions cited in note 6, supra, provides any insight into the basis for their uniform conclusion that Bivens has somehow singled out the constitutional rights protected by the Fourth Amendment as in greater peril or more deserving of legal redress than those rights embodied in the First, Fifth or Fourteenth Amendments, for example. Such a proposition appears completely at odds with prevailing notions of the preferred position of First Amendment rights8 and the rationale of Bivens itself. See cases cited in note 7, supra.

Third, has the jurisdictional minimum of § 1331 been satisfied? Plaintiff's allegation that he has suffered damages in the amount of $12,000 has not been disputed by the defendants. At issue here are two suspensions, each in excess of ten days, and their alleged injury to plaintiff's present and future education and to his reputation. The claim is by no means trivial. As the Supreme Court recognized with regard to suspensions of ten days or less in Goss v. Lopez, supra, 419 U.S. at 575-576, 95 S.Ct. at 736:

"If sustained and recorded, charges of misconduct could seriously damage the students' standing with their fellow pupils and their teachers as well as interfere with later opportunities for higher education and employment.
* * * * * *
. . . `Education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.' Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 493, 74 S.Ct. 686, 691, 98 L.Ed. 873 (1954), and the total exclusion from the educational process for more than a trivial period, and certainly if the suspension is for 10 days, is a serious event in the life of the suspended child." (Footnote omitted.)

Applying the appropriate standard, the Court is unable to conclude to a legal certainty that plaintiff's claim does not exceed the jurisdictional minimum. Murray v. Vaughn, 300 F.Supp. 688 (D.R. I.1969). See 1 Moore, Federal Practice, par. 0.921 at 833 (2d ed. 1974).

The Court therefore concludes that it has jurisdiction over the School Committee pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331(a). See Roane v. Callisburg Independent School District, 511 F.2d 633, 635 n. 1 (5th Cir. 1975); Brown v. Board of Education of City of Chicago, 386 F.Supp. 110, 121-122 (N.D.Ill.1974); Pelisek v. Trevor School District, 371 F.Supp. 1064 (E.D.Wis.1974). See note 3, supra.


This does not end our inquiry, for the defendants contend that there are two other barriers to the maintenance of the action. The first of these is plaintiff's failure to exhaust the administrative remedies provided by Rhode Island law.9

The defendants' argument is not well taken. It is clear that a plaintiff is not required to exhaust administrative remedies as a precondition to bringing an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See, e. g., Steffel v....

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