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Charter School Not a 'State Actor,' Court Rules

A federal appeals court has ruled that an Arizona charter school is not a "state actor" for purposes of federal civil rights law. The court upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by a former teacher at the school who alleged that the school deprived him of his liberty interest in finding other work.

Michael Caviness, a former physical education teacher and coach at the Horizon Community Learning Center in Phoenix, was placed on administrative leave in 2006 for questionable judgment over personal phone contacts with a female student, according to court papers. Caviness contended that the student had a crush on him and that he did nothing wrong. After his contract was not renewed, Caviness alleges that the charter school declined to clear his name and refused to provide references as he sought another teaching job.

He sued the school under the federal civil rights law known as Section 1983. That law, which stems from the Reconstruction-era Civil Rights Act of 1871, allows individuals to sue over any alleged deprivation of rights carried out under "color of law." To succeed in such a case, the plaintiff must show that the challenged conduct was attributable to government action.

For both a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, the key question was whether an Arizona charter school was a "state actor" under Section 1983. Both courts concluded it was not, and thus Caviness's suit could not proceed.

"This case presents the special situation of a private nonprofit corporation running a charter school that is defined as a 'public school' by state law," the three-judge appeals court panel said in its unanimous Jan. 4 decision in Caviness v. Horizon Community Learning Center.

The court said that even though charter schools are defined as public schools by the state of Arizona and are subject to extensive state rules and obligations, that does not transform private organizations that run them into government actors.

The appeals court cited a 1982 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, in Rendell-Baker v. Kohn, that a private school for troubled students in Massachusetts that received nearly all of its students by referral from public school districts and the state was nonetheless not a state actor for employment purposes under Section 1983.

"The Arizona legislature chose to provide alternative learning environments at public expense, but, as in Rendell-Baker, that legislative policy choice in no
way makes these services the exclusive province of the state," the appeals court said.

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