Watts v. Northside Indep Sch Dist, et al, No. 20-50103 (5th Cir. 2022)Annotate this Case
John Jay’s assistant coach (“Coach”) was “increasingly agitated, angry and enraged over his belief that the referee crew was making ‘bad calls,’” and over “alleged racial comments” Plaintiff, a referee, had directed at players. Coach told John Jay players “to hit” Plaintiff because “he need[ed] to pay the price.” The Coach pleaded guilty to assault causing bodily injury, affirming that he did “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly cause bodily injury to Plaintiff by striking him.” This civil rights suit, filed in state court and later removed to federal court, followed.
The Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the school district. The court held no policy or custom of Northside Independent School District directed the assault on Plaintiff—quite the opposite, the Coach had gone rogue in ordering the assault—so the district is not liable under section 1983.
But the state-created-danger theory does not even fit this situation in which a public employee ordered private actors to commit an assault. Instead, the theory applies when a state actor creates a dangerous condition that results in harm. It involves a mens rea of deliberate indifference, not the intentional infliction of harm. Instead, it is an example of a public official’s ordering private actors to engage in the conduct. The law has long recognized that state action exists when a state actor commands others to commit acts as much as when the state actor commits those act. Further, the court left it to the district court to determine complaint has alleged a violation of clearly established due process law.