Appeals court: Former Valdosta State student’s civil rights lawsuit will continue [Updated]

Updated 2/8 by Nick Glunt, SPLC staff writer. Original post by Frank LoMonte.

A former Georgia college student who was expelled after he crusaded against the college president’s parking-garage project can recover damages for violations of his constitutional rights, a federal appeals court decided Tuesday.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Thomas Hayden Barnes had demonstrated a “clearly established” constitutional right to have a fair opportunity to challenge his expulsion — an opportunity he was denied when Valdosta State University threw him out in May 2007 by shoving an expulsion notice under his dorm-room door.

In a 3-0 opinion by Judge Emmett Ripley Cox, the appeals court ruled that former Valdosta State President Ronald M. Zaccari can be held personally liable for money damages for violating Barnes’ due process rights.

Zaccari had asked the court to throw out Barnes’ case on the grounds of “qualified immunity,” which shields government officials against liability for the consequences of good-faith mistakes.

But there was no good-faith mistake, the court ruled, so there can be no immunity: “[N]o tenet of constitutional law is more clearly established than the rule that a property interest in continued enrollment in a state school is an important entitlement protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,” Cox wrote.

Barnes contends that he was branded “dangerous” and kicked out of school because of his forceful campaign against a parking deck that Zaccari had championed. Zaccari argued that he made the decision in a climate of anxiety following the Virginia Tech campus massacre, in fear for his safety because Barnes had a history of mental-health issues.

The ruling was not a complete win for Barnes. The appeals court dismissed another of Barnes’ claims — for breach of contract — in which he alleged that the university promised him in its code of student conduct that he would receive advance notice and a hearing before he could be removed from school.

The court decided that the contract claim was precluded by the State of Georgia’s immunity under the Eleventh Amendment, which limits the ability of federal courts to enter judgments against state governments.

Either side can appeal Tuesday’s ruling to the full Eleventh Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court. David Will of Royal-Will Law Firms, representing Zaccari and the Board of Regents, said he has not yet made a decision.

“I was pleased to see (the court) agreed with us on the 11th Amendment issue dealing with the breach of contract claim,” Will said. “I am looking at their holding on the qualified immunity claim, and seeing if we’re going to take it further.”

If neither side appeals, Barnes’ case will be returned to the U.S. District Court in Atlanta for a trial to determine what relief should be awarded. The lower court judge determined in 2010 that Zaccari violated Barnes’ due process rights, and the Eleventh Circuit opinion upholds that ruling.

Barnes’ attorney, Bob Corn-Revere of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, said the court’s ruling as to Zacarri was a significant victory.

“Quite often, administrators will count on qualified immunity to shield them when they try to claim they weren’t exactly clear on the contours of the rights that protect the student,” Corn-Revere said. “Here, the court made clear that (students) do have established rights and that administrators are not going to be able to hide behind the doctrine of qualified immunity.”

The backstory

Barnes was “administratively withdrawn” from VSU in May 2007. Barnes was told of his expulsion in a letter slid under his dorm room door. The letter, written by Zaccari, said the president believed Barnes posed a “clear and present danger.”

This was the culmination of a month and a half of emails and meetings over Zaccari’s pet project, a parking garage that Barnes believed would harm the environment. Barnes criticized Zaccari on Facebook and wrote a letter to the editor in the school’s student newspaper, The Spectator.

Zaccari claimed his actions were spurred by the Virginia Tech shootings, in which a gunman killed 33 students in April 2007. Barnes was seeing counselors for anxiety and agoraphobia before and during these events. However, the counselors advised Zaccari prior to the delivery of his letter that they believed Barnes posed no threat of violence to himself or others.

Over the months leading to Barnes’ expulsion, Zaccari began traveling with a security detail and arranged to have Barnes’ Facebook profile monitored for suspicious posts.

Among the posts were a story on the Virginia Tech shooter, a collage featuring Zaccari and the parking deck and a film contest ad with the phrase, “Shoot it. Upload it. Get famous.” Zaccari claimed he interpreted these posts as dangerous.

Barnes filed suit in January 2008 making a number of claims, including that the expulsion violated his free speech rights. The trial court judge sided with the university officials on that count, finding that while the lawsuit alleged a conspiracy to violate Barnes’ First Amendment rights, Zaccari acted alone.

However, the judge found in favor of Barnes on the due process and breach of contract claims. The court found in September 2010 that the Georgia Board of Regents breached its contract with Barnes because it did not afford him prior notice or a hearing on his expulsion. The judge also ruled that Zaccari violated Barnes’ due process rights. Attorneys for Zaccari and the board appealed and the Eleventh Circuit’s decision Tuesday reverses the breach of contract finding but affirms as to the due process violation.

After the trial court determines damages in the case, either side could appeal to the Eleventh Circuit again — raising the possibility that the First Amendment claim could eventually be revived.

Corn-Revere said discussion has just begun on what will happen next, and declined to comment on what actions he plans to take.

Background on the lawsuit

SPLC’s amicus brief in the case