Sunday, November 23, 2008

VSU Update - Lawsuit Progresses

The news just gets worse for Valdosta State University and some current and former administrators. For those of you who came in late, I have covered this story for a while in several posts. I am in the process of consolidating them all into a post called "Our Story Thus Far" should you wish to catch up with the rest of us suffering VSU Alumni.

For the rest of you, here is the news that was press released Wednesday and so far ignored by the local news:

FIRE - Good News from Georgia: Federal District Court Issues Important First Order in Valdosta State Lawsuit

Text of the Ruling

This is a lot of reading so, as a service to my readers, I will lay it out for you in my best tabloid manner:

Zaccari, Other VSU Employees, Personally Liable in Suit

A Federal District Judge has ruled that a trial can go forward on five of seven counts in the lawsuit of Thomas Hayden Barnes vs Valdosta State University, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, and several VSU administrators.

In his ruling, District Court Judge Charles A. Pannell, Jr., held that Former VSU President Ronald M. Zaccari, VSU In-House Counsel Lavern Gaskins, Vice-President of Student Affairs Kurt Keppler, Dean of Students Russ Mast, and Student Counselor Leah McMillan could be held individually liable for the violation of Barnes' constitutional rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Pannell also ruled that the State of Georgia could not be sued on the first two counts of Constitutional violations due to the immunity clause contained in the Eleventh Amendment and that there was insufficient reason given in the complaint to include Director of the VSU Counseling Center Victor Morgan in the suit.

The rulings were given as a result of a motion by the State to dismiss all charges and by a motion for partial summary judgment by Barnes. Defining what charges can and cannot go forward is a routine beginning of a civil lawsuit.

Barnes filed a lawsuit in January of this year in the Northern District of Georgia alleging that, among other things, his First Amendment Rights had been violated and his 14th Amendment rights to due process under the Constitution had been denied when he was expelled for protesting against the building of a parking garage at Valdosta State University.

Under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, civil suits can be brought against government officials who deprive citizens of their constitutional or statutory rights, privileges, or immunities. Barnes invoked this law to include VSU administrators in his complaint and the judge agreed Wednesday that all but one could be held personally liable.

The judge also upheld Barnes' right to sue VSU and the Board of Regents for violation of a binding contract by failing to observe policies outlined in VSU's student handbook.

The State and all but one University employee were ruled to be liable in the complaint that they violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act by using Barnes' visits to the university counseling center against him as the basis for intentional discrimination.

In the ruling, the judge noted that "President Zaccari initiated an effort, with the assistance of some of the named defendants in the complaint, to learn more about Barnes’ psychiatric health and to explore procedures for expelling Barnes as a student." Barnes' complaint is that this violated his rights to privacy and discriminated against him.

Of particular interest was the famous Facebook collage that was posted by Barnes and the phrase "S.A.V.E. Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage" that was given as one of the reasons that President Zaccari felt physically threatened by Barnes. In reference to this the judge noted:

"For purposes of the motion to dismiss, the court determines that the inclusion of the word “memorial” by its mere utterance in a photo collage that was posted on an Internet website simply cannot be rationally construed as likely to incite immediate violence"
Now that the Judge has ruled that the suit can go forward, VSU and the other defendants are required to make some response.

As of this writing (11/23/2008), no statement on this has been released by the State of Georgia or Valdosta State University and no other news story has been posted on it on the web.

If "personally liable" means what I think it means, then some individuals are going to have to get their own lawyer and start checking their homeowners policy for liability limits.

There are certainly other, better, scenarios such as the state deciding to pick up the tab or their friends establishing a legal fund to pay for lawyers. Certainly the State would be better off to remain in control of the lawsuit and not have to share time with a raft of personal lawyers.

The State could just offer Barnes money and leave everyone else to fend for themselves - ouch!

If the Guice household was involved in this, I'd be screaming uncle. I'd ask Barnes how long he'd like my sons to mow his lawn and hope he'd have pity on me.