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When a government official is sued under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 under a theory of direct liability, he may seek summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds. To even be eligible for summary judgment due to qualified immunity, the official must have been engaged in a "discretionary function" when he performed the acts of which the plaintiff complains. It is the burden of the governmental official to make this showing. A defendant unable to meet this burden may not receive summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds. While a number of cases of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit omit this step of the analysis, binding U.S. Supreme Court and Eleventh Circuit precedents require the court to consider expressly this critical threshold matter. If, interpreting the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the court concludes that the defendant was engaged in a discretionary function, then the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that the defendant is not entitled to qualified immunity. To overcome qualified immunity, the plaintiff must satisfy a two prong test; he must show that: (1) the defendant violated a constitutional right, and (2) this right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation. If the plaintiff prevails on both prongs of this test, then the defendant is unable to obtain summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds.
Michael Holloman, a former student at Parrish High School in Walker County, Alabama, filed a § 1983 suit against Fawn Allred, his economics and government teacher; George Harland, the school principal; and the Walker County Board of Education ("School Board"), which oversaw the school. He claimed that his rights under the First Amendment's Speech Clause were violated when Allred and Harland punished him for silently raising his fist during the daily flag salute instead of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with the rest of his class. He further claimed that his Establishment Clause rights were violated by Allred's daily "ritual" of conducting a silent moment of prayer. He sought both legal and equitable relief. The district court granted summary judgment on both claims to Allred and Harland on qualified immunity grounds. In a separate opinion, it granted summary judgment to the School Board, concluding that Holloman failed to articulate a violation of his constitutional rights or demonstrate a way in which the Board (as a municipal governing entity) could be held liable for the acts at issue here. Holloman appealed both rulings.
Did the district court err in granting summary judgment to Allred and Harland on qualified immunity grounds?
The court held that neither Allred nor Harland was entitled to summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds against Holloman’s Speech Clause claims. Allred was not even potentially entitled to summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds against the student's Establishment Clause claim, as she did not establish that, in holding her daily moment of silent prayer, she was engaged in a discretionary job function. Holloman abandoned his Establishment Clause claim against Harland, but he successfully articulated Speech and Establishment Clause claims against the board.