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Clayton v. Tate County School District:

Fifth Circuit Rules No Constitutional Cause of Action for Excessive Corporal Punishment at School --Even in Mississippi, Which Has the Highest Paddling Rate in the United States

Richard Fossey, J.D., Ed.D., Paul Burdin Endowed Professor of Education, and Twyla Williams-Damond, Ed.D., University of Louisiana at Lafayette

In an unpublished opinion dated March 25, 2014, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a Mississippi student’s claims that the paddling he received at school violated his constitutional rights. Clayton v. Tate County School District, No. 13-60608 (5th Cir. Mar. 25, 2014).  Relying on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651 (1977), the Fifth Circuit rejected the student’s claim that the paddling violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment as well as his claim that he was denied procedural due process of law. In addition, the court rejected the student’s argument that his equal protection rights were violated and his claim that the severity of the punishment violated his right to substantive due process.

Facts

In the spring of 2011, Trey Clayton was an eighth-grade student at Independence High School in Tate County, Mississippi. On March 10, 2011, he was sent to the school library after his teacher discovered that he was not sitting in his assigned seat. While sitting in the library, Jerome Martin, one of the school’s assistant principals approached him and allegedly told Clayton that his bad behavior had to stop.

As outlined in Clayton’s complaint, Martin appeared “angry and agitated. Id. at *2. Martin told Clayton to follow him to his office, where he “struck Clayton three times on the buttocks with a paddle” using “excessive and great force.” Id.   Apparently, the paddling was quite severe, because the beating “left visible bruising and welts on Clayton’s buttocks, which were visible for days thereafter.” Id.

Clayton fainted almost immediately after being paddled and fell face first onto the concrete floor outside the assistant principal’s office.  “When Clayton regained consciousness,” Clayton’s pleadings alleged, “he was bleeding, five of his teeth were shattered, and, it was later determined, his jaw was broken.” Id.

Through his mother, Clayton filed suit in federal court, alleging a violation of his constitutional rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment.  There he found an extremely unsympathetic federal trial judge.  Acting on the school district’s motion to dismiss, the judge initially ordered Clayton to amend his complaint or face sanctions for filing a meritless lawsuit.  Later the judge reconsidered his order directing Clayton to amend his complaint and granted the school district’s motion to dismiss.

Fifth Circuit’s Opinion

In a brief unpublished opinion, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s dismissal.  The court pointed out that the United States Supreme Court had rejected the argument that excessive corporal punishment at school violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment in Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651, 683 (1977).  

Clayton argued that the Ingraham opinion contained “escape hatch” language that allowed lower courts to reconsider the constitutionality of corporal punishment under the Eighth Amendment as society’s attitudes toward corporal punishment change.  But the Fifth Circuit rejected this argument, stating simply that to the extent Ingraham left open an escape hatch from its ruling, “it is available for the Supreme Court, and not this court, to use.” Id. at *4.

Likewise, the Fifth Circuit rejected Clayton’s procedural due process argument. “In Ingraham, the Fifth Circuit court pointed out, the Supreme Court “concluded that there is no procedural due process violation when a corporally punished student is not given the opportunity to be heard pre-deprivation.” Id. at *5.  Instead, the Supreme Court ruled, post-deprivation remedies satisfy procedural due process when such remedies are available. In Mississippi, the Fifth Circuit noted, Mississippi school officials could be held criminally or civilly liable for administering excessive corporal punishment. Thus Clayton’s procedural due process rights were not violated by the fact that he received no hearing prior to being paddled.

Regarding Clayton’s substantive due process argument, the Fifth Circuit panel cited a previous Fifth Circuit decision ruling that “post-deprivation state-law remedies available in Mississippi provide an adequate remedy [for excessive  corporal punishment], barring a student subject to corporal punishment from asserting a substantive due process claim.” Id. at *6 (citing Scott v. Smith, 214 F.3d 1349, 1349 (5th Cir. 2000) (unpublished) (per curiam).

Finally, the Fifth Circuit rejected Clayton’s equal protection claim, which he based on the charge that Tate County School District “administers its corporal-punishment policy in a gender-biased manner because male students are disproportionately punished.” Id. at *7.  In the court’s view, Clayton had not alleged that he or any other male student was disproportionately the recipient of corporal punishment “because of a biased belief that troublesome boys should be punished more [than troublesome girls]” or that school officials had used gender as an “invidious criterion for determining who should be paddled.” Id. at *7-8.

Conclusion and Implications for Practitioners

In reaching its decision, the Fifth Circuit broke no new ground. In particular, the Fifth Circuit has repeatedly ruled that it will not recognize a substantive due process claim for excessive corporal punishment when state-law remedies are available. Moore v. Willis Indep. Sch. Dist., 233 F.3d 871, 874 (5th Cir. 2000); Scott v. Smith, 214 F.3d 1349, 1349 (5th Cir. 2000) (unpublished) (per curiam); Fee v. Herndon, 900 F.2d 804, 808 (5th Cir. 1990); Cunningham v. Beavers, 858 F.2d 269, 272 (5th Cir. 1988); Coleman v. Franklin Parish Sch. Bd., 702 F.2d 74, 76 (5th Cir.1983). In decisions dating back to 1983, the Court has ruled that adequate state remedies are available in all three states comprising the Fifth Circuit--Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas; and thus it will not recognize a substantive due process claim for excessive corporal punishment anywhere within the jurisdiction of the Fifth Circuit.

As Lewis Wasserman noted in his comprehensive law review article on the constitutional dimensions of corporal punishment in the public schools, “No other circuit court has adopted [the Fifth Circuit’s] reasoning.” Lewis Wasserman, Corporal Punishment in K-12 Public School Settings: Reconsideration of its Constitutional Dimensions Thirty Years After Ingraham v. Wright, 26 TOURO  L. REV. 1029, 1057 (2011). Indeed, with the exception of the Fifth Circuit, every federal circuit court that has addressed the topic has ruled that corporal punishment can be a substantive due process violation of a child’s right to bodily integrity if it meets a threshold level of brutality. For example, in Garcia v. Miera, 817 F.2d 650, 656 (10th Cir. 1987), the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that allegations of brutal corporal punishment inflicted on an elementary school girl “were shocking to the conscience” and constituted a claim for violation of substantive due process.

Clayton’s implication for school administrators who are employed within the boundaries of the Fifth Circuit is simply this: The Fifth Circuit has restated its position that it will not recognize a federal cause of action for violation of due process based on an allegation of excessive corporal punishment.  It is perhaps ironic that the Clayton case arose in Mississippi, which has the highest paddling rate in its K-12 schools of any state in the United States. Jessie Broussard, Twyla Williams-Damond, Mary R. Broussard, Richard Fossey, & Robert Slater, Corporal Punishment in Southern Schools: Good News, Bad News & News That’s Pretty Ugly, TEACHERS COLLEGE RECORD (Aug. 16, 2013), available at http://www.tcrecord.org, ID Number 17221. 

Furthermore research shows that Mississippi boys are far more likely to be paddled at school than girls and that African Americans are about twice as likely to be paddled as non-African American children in Mississippi schools.  Twyla Williams-Damond, Analysis of Corporal Punishment Practices in the State of Mississippi (May 15, 2014) (unpublished dissertation, University of Louisiana at Lafayette) (on file with authors).

Moreover, the Fifth Circuit’s conclusion that Mississippi students have adequate state remedies if they are the victims of excessive corporal punishment is questionable. Thus far, no published Mississippi court decision has affirmed a money award against a Mississippi educator for engaging in excessive corporal punishment. In a 1999 decision, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that a Mississippi school teacher was statutorily immune from liability from a claim that she had administered excessive corporal punishment against a student. Duncan v. Chamblee, 757 So. 2d 946, 950 (Miss. 1999). The teacher had been acting within the course and scope of her employment duties, the court ruled, and could not be sued (citing MISS. CODE ANN. § 11-46-7(2).

In short, Mississippi school children who are injured by excessive corporal punishment while at school may be without a legal remedy. They certainly have no federal due process claim. The Clayton case made that clear. But given Mississippi educators’ statutory immunity from liability for actions they take within the course and scope of their employment duties, Mississippi students may have no state-court remedy either, absent facts establishing that the corporal punishment they received constituted a criminal violation. 

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