Can You Sue If School Outs You to Mom? Not in the 5th Cir.
Bad news for gay high school kids wanting to sue their coaches; the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that two Texas high school softball coaches had qualified immunity despite allegations that the two “outed” a lesbian player to her mother.
In Wyatt v. Fletcher, the Court ruled that the plaintiff’s Section 1983 claim alleging a 14th Amendment violation of privacy was vague at best and certainly not enough to overcome the public school coaches’ qualified immunity.
Is there a right to keep your sexual orientation private at public school?
Coaches Had Qualified Immunity
This issue was on interlocutory appeal from the district court due to ruling on the issue of qualified immunity as a defense.
The lower court had denied the coaches' motion for summary judgment based on this defense, so the 5th Circuit took the time to thoroughly explain the tests for qualified immunity from Wooley v. City of Baton Rouge.
In order for a plaintiff to overcome a defendant's qualified immunity, she must prove:
- That the defendant violated a plaintiff's rights which were "sufficiently clear" so that a reasonable official would understand her actions would violate that right; AND
- The defendant acted objectively reasonable
Based on even the most deferential reading of the facts, the Court could not find a violation of rights that was sufficient for the first prong of the Wooley analysis.
Privacy Right in Confidential Information
The central allegation by Wyatt is that school staff violated her daughter's 14th Amendment constitutional right to confidentiality by sharing facts with her mother about her romantic life and implied sexual orientation.
The U.S. Supreme Court has touched on a general right to "avoiding disclosure of personal matters by the government," but hasn't revisited the topic squarely in the last three decades.
The 5th Circuit pens in Wyatt that they have never "held that a person has a constitutionally-protected privacy interest in her sexual orientation" adding somewhat sarcastically that Wyatt's alleged constitutional right is essentially a "new rule of law."
Future "Outing" Cases
It doesn't appear that on its own there is a federal constitutional right to school officials keeping your confidences, closeted or otherwise, and maybe a 14th Amendment right to privacy is not the right place to start.
The 4th Amendment case law is likely more fertile ground for this kind of claim, focusing more on the act of confining and questioning a student about their sexual orientation.
- Wyatt v. Fletcher (United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit)
- Appeals Court Backs Coaches in Disclosure of Student's Sexual Orientation (Education Week)
- Fifth Cir. OKs First Amendment Candy Canes and Qualified Immunity (FindLaw's U.S. Fifth Circuit Blog)
- Fifth Circuit Katrina Suit: No Qualified Immunity for Corps Under FCA (FindLaw's U.S. Fifth Circuit Blog)