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    The Lawletter Blog

    CONSTITUTIONAL LAW: No False Imprisonment Claims for Teacher Arrested for Grabbing First

    Posted by Gale Burns on Mon, Oct 7, 2013 @ 12:10 PM

    The Lawletter Vol 38 No 7

    John Stone, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

         A first grade teacher in a public school brought an action against the New York City Department of Education, her school principal, an assistant principal, and police officers, alleging under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983 that she had been subjected to racial discrimination and retaliation and that she had been falsely imprisoned and unlawfully strip-searched.  In a lengthy opinion, the trial court granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment on all claims and denied the plaintiff's motion to amend her complaint. Blythe v. City of New York, No. 08-CV-2843(RRM)(CLP), 2013 WL 3990772 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 5, 2013).

         Regarding the false imprisonment claim, the court ruled that probable cause existed for the teacher's arrest for endangering the welfare of a child, thus precluding her false imprisonment claims against the police officers under § 1983 and New York state law.  The key facts as
    to this claim were as follows:   Because the first grader was being disruptive and repeatedly leaving the classroom, the teacher requested that the school's parent coordinator contact the student's father or mother.  The father came to the school and met with the teacher and his child, who told her father in the teacher's presence that the teacher had scratched her when putting her back in her seat.  The student's mother was then contacted by the father and, independently, by another teacher, both of whom indicated that the student was crying because the teacher had thrown her into a chair earlier that day.  The mother went to the school, where she saw that her daughter's shirt was ripped. In a heated conversation, she accused the teacher of harming her child.

         After learning of the allegations against the teacher, the school principal reported the allegation of corporal punishment through the proper channels, resulting in the principal's being informed that the mother could call 911 because of the seriousness of the incident and the age of the student.  The principal and the student's mother then called 911 and reported the incident.  (The mother also later filed with the New  York Police Department a formal complaint against the teacher for, among other things, endangering the welfare of a child.)

         When police officers arrived at the school shortly thereafter, the mother, who was still at the school, informed the officers that the teacher had "'put her hands on the child and forced her back into her seat'" numerous times.  Id. at *4.  One police officer saw "'a little bit of redness'" on the student.  Id.  He then arrested the teacher and transported her to a police station, where she was detained and strip-searched.  About four hours later, after the teacher had been further questioned by a police detective and a social services agency representative, the arrest was voided and the teacher was released.

         Notwithstanding that the arrest was voided a few hours after it had been made, the teacher's claims for false imprisonment under federal civil rights law and state tort law failed because of the presence of probable cause at the time when the arrest was made. Under the alleged facts, taken to be true by the court, the student's mother called 911 and reported that the teacher had put her hands on the student and forced her back into her seat numerous times, and after the police officers arrived, they corroborated the information contained in the 911 call.  Moreover, the court observed that the teacher was precluded from challenging the fact that she had grabbed the child, based on a hearing officer's prior determination that "'[plaintiff] grabbed a first grade child with sufficient force that she tore the collar of her shirt and popped the buttons.  She grabbed the child with sufficient intensity that she left marks on the student's shoulder.'"  Id. at *19 n.10.  This factual determination also contributed to the existence of probable cause for the arrest and brief imprisonment.  Id. at *17.

    Topics: legal research, constitutional law, The Lawletter Vol 38 No 7, false imprisonment claim, unlawful strip-search, Blythe v. City of New York, Eastern District of NY, retaliation, John M Stone

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