Charter Schools Are Not State Actors Under Section 1983 According to Ninth Circuit Ruling

With the proliferation of charter schools in California and other states, an issue was sure to arise over whether the school stands in the shoes of the state for all purposes when it offers educational services to the public. In Caviness v. Horizon Community Learning Center, Inc. (copy attached), the Ninth Circuit ruled that an Arizona charter school was not equivalent to the state for purposes of liability under Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code, the statute most often invoked in damage claims for constitutional and statutory violations caused by persons acting “under color of state law.” According to the ruling, there must be a close nexus between the state and the challenged action in order for private behavior to be treated as a governmental act. In the Caviness’s case, the charter school was deemed a “public school” under Arizona statutes, but the court nevertheless demanded a more searching inquiry to assess “the specific conduct of which the plaintiff complains.” In essence, the court ruled that an entity can be a state actor for some purposes, but not for all purposes. The key is to find that the conduct in question was itself mandated by state law. The plaintiff had complained that the school allowed him to be defamed -- by failing to insist that other employees stop making statements about Caviness’s performance as a teacher -- and as the result of the school’s refusal to provide Caviness with a “name clearing” hearing. But the court rejected all of plaintiff’s arguments noting that in order to be considered the acts of the state, actions must be specifically mandated by the government. Here, the employment decisions made by the school were not mandated by the state, but rather, were the school’s own internal decisions. This opinion provides excellent guidance for anyone contemplating a Section 1983 suit against a charter school. A copy of the court’s ruling is attached.

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