Employees cannot use federal civil rights laws to sue the owners of Arizona charter schools, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday.
The judges acknowledged that, under Arizona law, charter schools are "public schools." They are authorized to operate under state law and must comply with some - but not all - of the same requirements as traditional district schools.
But Judge Sandra Ikuta, writing for the unanimous court, said that does not make the school and its owners "state actors," something required to make a civil rights challenge. Instead, the court concluded, the school is a private company despite those state laws, at least for purposes of deciding who to hire, fire and, in this case, whether to provide a referral for a future job.
The ruling is a setback for Michael Caviness, who claims that actions by Horizon Community Learning Center employees prevented him from getting a job with the Mesa Unified School District. But attorney David Larkin, who represents Caviness, said it could have broader implications for those who work for charter schools.
For example, he said, public school employees who make comments in the media on matters of public concern are protected against retaliation from their principals and school boards. He said the civil rights laws his client cited can clearly be used to sue those officials for violating the teacher's freedom of speech.
"If a charter school teacher now does that, they don't have the (same) right to freedom of speech as a public school employee," he said.
According to court records, Caviness was employed by the Horizon charter school for six years as a physical education and health teacher and track and field coach.
In February 2006 a female student filed a complaint alleging "the student-teacher boundary had been crossed."
Evidence that came out during a hearing where school officials questioned the girl showed that she and Caviness had been communicating by telephone. When the student learned Caviness had an adult girlfriend she retaliated by filing the grievance.
The school's board found no specific wrongdoing but instead determined Caviness had exercised bad judgment and decided not to renew his contract.
Lawrence Pieratt, the school's executive director, subsequently wrote a letter to Caviness, with copies to the Horizon board and the state Board of Education. Caviness said the letter "contained numerous false and defamatory statements and private information that Pieratt misused to purposely place ... Caviness in a bad light."
When Caviness sought the job in Mesa, that school district did not hire him. Caviness said Mesa asked Pieratt to rate the teacher on his ability and knowledge and Pieratt refused since Horizon had not renewed his contract. Caviness said that was done to harm him since Pieratt knew he had an excellent record as a teacher and coach.
Caviness filed suit in federal court, alleging the actions of Horizon and Pieratt violated his civil rights by interfering with his opportunity to take advantage of other educational opportunities.
His claim is based on federal laws that make it illegal to deprive individuals of their rights under color of law.
To back that argument, he cites various statutes that define charter schools as "public schools," as well as a 1995 attorney general's opinion that says charter school board meetings are subject to the state's open meetings law.
But Ikuta said that doesn't make everything Horizon - and any other charter school - does a state function. And in this case, she said, the decision not to renew his contract and any subsequent actions were not done as any sort of state action.