Courts Rule on the Basis of Qualified Immunity in Clarkson v. White

The trial and appellate courts recently ruled in the case of Clarkson v. White on the basis of qualified immunity—the well-established doctrine that government officials cannot be sued for civil rights infractions unless they violated a “clearly established” right.

Clarkson v. White – Background

Many job applicants have faced rejection from a dream job because of an unsavory event in their history—be it a racy video, a prior arrest, or a questionable political editorial published in a college newspaper. For Aleashia Clarkson, CEO of Kingdom Builders Community Development Corporation, the dream job was running a charter school in Lafayette Parish—and the unsavory event was spanking her children on national television.

Aleashia Clarkson appeared on an episode of America’s Supernanny in 2013. America’s Supernanny is a reality TV show in which nanny Deborah Tillman travels around the country helping parents who struggle to discipline their unruly children. Ms. Clarkson was the mother of the family featured in the fifth episode of the show’s second season. The episode aired with scenes in which Ms. Clarkson spanked her seven children and vocally expressed her approval for corporal punishment.

Two years after that episode aired, Kingdom Builders applied to the Lafayette Parish School Board to open a charter school in Broussard, Louisiana. The Board rejected its application, and Kingdom Builders appealed to the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (LBESE). As part of that process, both the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) and a private third-party evaluator scrutinized Kingdom Builder’s application and its qualifications. The third-party evaluator recommended that Kingdom Builder’s application be approved—but LDOE recommended against it.

LDOE’s committee, headed by LDOE Superintendent John White, was clear in giving its reason for recommending that LBESE reject Kingdom Builder’s application. It rated Ms. Clarkson personally as “deficient” in three of the six categories used to determine an administrator’s professionalism and ability to “lead and manage a high-performing charter school.” LDOE expressly stated that “without question,” all of its concerns arose out of Ms. Clarkston’s decision to appear on America’s Supernanny  and the subsequent press from that appearance.

After being rejected, Ms. Clarkton sued Mr. White for violating her First and Fourth Amendment rights by recommending that LBESE reject Kingdom Builder’s application. She claims he unconstitutionally retaliated against her based on his disapproval of the opinions she expressed on America’s Supernanny.

The Trial and Appellate Courts’ Rulings

The trial court ruled in the case of Clarkson v. White on the basis of qualified immunity—the well-established doctrine that government officials cannot be sued for civil rights infractions unless they violated a “clearly established” right. The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard Ms. Clarkson’s appeal and agreed with the lower court.

The appellate court said in its decision that the main issue in this case was not whether the Superintendent actually violated Ms. Clarkson’s civil rights, but rather whether he violated a clearly established constitutional right. The court noted that the Superintendent did not have final authority in approving or rejecting Kingdom Builder’s application. Because federal law is unclear as to whether a person who is not a final decisionmaker on an application can be liable for rejecting the application in retaliation, the court found that Ms. Clarkson’s right was not clearly established. Because the constitutional right she claimed had not been clearly established, the Superintendent did not violate the right. Accordingly, he was entitled to qualified immunity and the case was properly dismissed.