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Goodwin v. Board of Education of Fayette County

Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia

November 12, 2019

AUSTIN JOSEPH GOODWIN, Petitioner
v.
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF FAYETTE COUNTY, Political Subdivision of the State of West Virginia, WEST VIRGINIA BOARD OF EDUCATION, ANDSTEVEN L. PAINE, Ed.D., in his official capacity as West Virginia Superintendent of Schools, Respondents

          Submitted: October 29, 2019

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Kanawha County Honorable Jennifer F. Bailey, Judge Civil Action No. 16-C-1447

          Steven R. Broadwater, Jr., Esq. Kevin B. Burgess, Esq. Hamilton, Burgess, Young & Pollard, PLLC Fayetteville, West Virginia Attorneys for Petitioner

          Jared C. Underwood, Esq. Chip E. Williams, Esq. Pullin, Fowler, Flanagan, Brown & Poe, PLLC Beckley, West Virginia Attorneys for Respondents

          JUSTICE HUTCHISON delivered the Opinion of the Court. JUSTICE WORKMAN dissents and reserves the right to file a dissenting opinion.

         SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

         1. "A circuit court's entry of summary judgment is reviewed de novo." Syllabus point 1, Painter v. Peavy, 192 W.Va. 189, 451 S.E.2d 755 (1994).

         2. A determination of whether a county board of education is entitled to assert qualified immunity as a state actor in a civil action, after the West Virginia Board of Education has intervened in the county school system pursuant to W.Va. Code § 18-2E-5 [2017], will depend upon the degree of control the West Virginia Board of Education exercises over the county's school system.

         3. "To determine whether the State, its agencies, officials, and/or employees are entitled to immunity, a reviewing court must first identify the nature of the governmental acts or omissions which give rise to the suit for purposes of determining whether such acts or omissions constitute legislative, judicial, executive or administrative policy-making acts or involve otherwise discretionary governmental functions." Syllabus point 10, in part, W. Virginia Reg'l Jail & Corr. Facility Auth. v. A.B., 234 W.Va. 492');">234 W.Va. 492, 766 S.E.2d 751 (2014).

         4. "To the extent that governmental acts or omissions which give rise to a cause of action fall within the category of discretionary functions, a reviewing court must determine whether the plaintiff has demonstrated that such acts or omissions are in violation of clearly established statutory or constitutional rights or laws of which a reasonable person would have known or are otherwise fraudulent, malicious, or oppressive in accordance with State v. Chase Securities, Inc., 188 W.Va. 356, 424 S.E.2d 591 (1992). In absence of such a showing, both the State and its officials or employees charged with such acts or omissions are immune from liability." Syllabus point 11, W. Virginia Reg'l Jail & Corr. Facility Auth. v. A.B., 234 W.Va. 492');">234 W.Va. 492, 766 S.E.2d 751 (2014).

          OPINION

          Hutchison, Justice.

         The Petitioner, Austin Joseph Goodwin, brought this appeal from a January 31, 2018 summary judgment order of the Circuit Court of Kanawha County. The Petitioner filed a civil action against the Respondents based upon injuries he received while wrestling on a public school soccer field.[1] The circuit court granted summary judgment against the Petitioner after concluding the Respondents were entitled to qualified immunity. The Petitioner contends that the Respondents are not entitled to qualified immunity. Upon careful review of the briefs, the appendix record, the arguments of the parties, and the applicable legal authority, we affirm.

         I.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The record in this matter indicates that on June 9, 2014, the Petitioner was enrolled as a junior at Oak Hill High School, Oak Hill, West Virginia.[2] On that date, the Petitioner and another student, Katherine Deel, left the high school building without authorization after the seventh period of class. The Petitioner and Katherine went to a soccer field near the school, where they met two other students, Zach McCarthy and Levi Blevins. After watching Zach and Levi wrestle, the Petitioner decided to wrestle with Zach. While wrestling with Zach, the Petitioner severely injured his left arm. The Petitioner contends that he has incurred approximately $200, 000 in medical expenses as a result of the arm injury.

         Subsequent to the injury to his arm, the Petitioner filed a civil action on May 11, 2016, against the Board of Education of Fayette County, the Fayette County Sheriff's Department and Deputy Matthew Kessler. The case was filed in the Circuit Court of Fayette County. The Petitioner amended the complaint on July 6, 2016, to name the current Respondents as defendants.[3] The amended complaint alleged that the Respondents "were negligent in the operation of Oak Hill High School, in permitting students to depart the school premises unsupervised during school hours, and engage in horseplay and roughhousing, unsupervised[.]" After the amendment to the complaint, the case was transferred to the circuit court in Kanawha County.

         After a period of discovery, the Respondents moved for summary judgment in October of 2017. A hearing on the motion was held on December 8, 2017. At the conclusion of the hearing, the circuit court ruled from the bench that the Respondents were entitled to qualified immunity. The circuit court also ruled that, because the Petitioner was an adult when he left the school, the Respondents no longer owed him a duty at the time of the injury. The circuit court subsequently issued an order on January 31, 2018, granting summary judgment to the Respondents and dismissing the case. This appeal followed.

         II.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In this proceeding, we are called upon to review a summary judgment order of the circuit court. "A circuit court's entry of summary judgment is reviewed de novo." Syl. pt. 1, Painter v. Peavy, 192 W.Va. 189, 451 S.E.2d 755 (1994). We have long recognized that "[a] motion for summary judgment should be granted only when it is clear that there is no genuine issue of fact to be tried and inquiry concerning the facts is not desirable to clarify the application of the law." Syl. pt. 3, Aetna Casualty & Surety Co. v. Federal Insurance Co. of New York, 148 W.Va. 160, 133 S.E.2d 770 (1963). Mindful of the de novo standard governing our review, we proceed to consider the substantive issues raised.

         III.

         DISCUSSION

         The Petitioner contends that the circuit court committed error in finding that the Respondents were entitled to qualified immunity. Two issues are involved with the question of the applicability of qualified immunity to the Respondents. The first issue is whether the Respondent, Board of Education of Fayette County (hereinafter "County Board"), was a state actor for purposes of qualified immunity.[4] The second issue is whether the Respondents are entitled to qualified immunity. We will address the issues separately.

         1. The County Board was a state actor.

         The Petitioner contends that the circuit court erred in finding the County Board had qualified immunity and was not subject to a civil action under the West Virginia Governmental Tort Claims and Insurance Reform Act[5] because it was a state actor at the time of his injury. The Respondents argue that the circuit court did not err in finding the County Board was a state actor, because at the time of Petitioner's injury the West Virginia Board of Education (hereinafter State Board) had intervened in the County Board's school system pursuant to W.Va. Code § 18-2E-5.

         As a general matter, we have recognized that W.Va. Code § 18-2E-5 "provides for the process of improving education, establishing education standards, conducting statewide assessments, requiring accountability measures, creating audit systems, establishing school accreditation levels, assigning school system approval levels, and intervening to correct low performance." West Virginia Bd. of Educ. v. Croaff, No. 16-0532, 2017 WL 2172009, at *1 ( W.Va. May 17, 2017) (Memorandum Decision). The record indicates that the State Board intervened in the County Board school system in 2010, and that such intervention was in place when the Petitioner sustained his arm injury in 2014. At the time of the State Board's intervention in 2010, its intervention authority over county school systems was contained in W.Va. Code § 18-2E-5(p)(4)(C), which provided:

Whenever nonapproval status is given to a school system, the state board shall declare a state of emergency in the school system. . . . If progress in correcting the emergency, as determined by the state board, is not made within six months . . . the state board shall intervene in the operation of the school system to cause improvements to be made that will provide assurances that a thorough and efficient system of schools will be provided. This intervention may include, but is not limited to, the following:
(i) Limiting the authority of the county superintendent and county board as to the expenditure of funds, the employment and dismissal of personnel, the establishment and operation of the school calendar, the establishment of instructional programs and rules and any other areas designated by the state board by rule, which may include delegating decision-making authority regarding these matters to the state superintendent;
(ii) Declaring that the office of the county superintendent is vacant;
(iii) Delegating to the state superintendent both the authority to conduct hearings on personnel matters and school closure or consolidation matters and, subsequently, to render the resulting decisions and the authority to appoint a designee for the limited purpose of conducting hearings while reserving to the state superintendent the authority to render the resulting decisions;
(iv) Functioning in lieu of the county board of education in transfer, sale, purchase or other transaction regarding real property; and
(v) Taking any direct action necessary to correct the emergency including, but not limited to, the following:
(I) Delegating to the state superintendent the authority to replace administrators and principals in low performing schools and to transfer them into alternate professional positions within the county at his or her discretion; and
(II) Delegating to the state superintendent the authority to fill positions of administrators and principals with individuals determined by the state superintendent to be the most qualified for the positions....[6]

         The issue of whether a county school board is a state actor as a result of the State Board's intervention under W.Va. Code § 18-2E-5 is one of first impression for this Court. However, Chief Judge Goodwin of the United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia was called upon in two cases to decide whether a West Virginia county school board becomes a state actor, for immunity purposes, when the State Board intervenes in its school system under W.Va. Code § 18-2E-5.[7] In the first case, Workman v. Mingo County Schools, 667 F.Supp.2d 679 (S.D.W.Va. 2009), the mother of a child sought a religious exemption for the child from a mandatory public school immunization program. The exemption was denied and the mother filed a suit in federal court against the Mingo County Board of Education and others. At the time of the suit, the State Board had intervened in the Mingo County school system under the authority of W.Va. Code § 18-2E-5. Consequently, the Mingo County Board moved for summary judgment on the grounds that it was a state actor as a result of the State Board's intervention in its school system. The Mingo County Board argued that it was entitled to state immunity under the Eleventh Amendment of the federal constitution. The federal district court agreed as follows:

The Fourth Circuit has enumerated a list of factors to determine whether an entity is an arm of the state. Cash v. Granville County Bd. of Educ., 242 F.3d 219 (4th Cir.2001). While emphasizing that the most important factor "is whether a judgment against the governmental entity would have to be paid from the State's treasury," this factor is not necessarily dispositive:
To examine the nature of the entity and its relationship with the State, we keep the State treasury factor in the calculus and look to three additional factors: (1) the degree of control that the State exercises over the entity or the degree of autonomy from the State that the entity enjoys; (2) the scope of the entity's concerns-whether local or statewide-with which the entity is involved; and (3) the manner in which State law treats the entity. Under this "sovereign dignity" inquiry, a court must, in the end, determine whether the governmental entity is so connected to the State that the legal action against the entity would . . . amount to "the indignity of subjecting a State to the coercive process of judicial tribunals at the instance of private parties."
Id. at 223-24 (internal citations omitted). ...

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