Posts tagged with "motion for summary judgment"

School District Was Not on Notice of Inappropriate Teacher Conduct with Student; Negligence Action Dismissed

Seven years ago yesterday, the Superior Court of Connecticut in the Judicial District of Middletown handed down its decision in a lawsuit filed by a former student (plaintiff) against the Town of Clinton as well as the board of education. In this case, the plaintiff “brought a direct claim against the defendants, alleging failure to supervise and negligent supervision” in violation of state law,[1] leading to his sexual abuse by a teacher while he was in fifth, sixth, and seventh grades.

A municipality’s liability for negligent acts or omissions depends on whether they “require the exercise of judgment or discretion as an official function of the authority expressly or impliedly granted by law.”[2] In other words, acts that must be performed by the dictates of State law, thus prohibiting discretion, may result in liability if negligently performed; if discretion is permitted, liability will not attach unless one of three exceptions applies.

Discretionary Acts

Historically, Connecticut courts have held that “the duty of the defendant [school district] to supervise students is a discretionary, governmental duty.”[3] In addition, employer conduct with respect to failure to screen, hire, train, supervise, control, and discipline constitutes “discretionary acts as a matter of law.”[4]

In this case, the plaintiff contended that under Connecticut law,[5] the defendants “had no discretion not to conduct a continuous teacher evaluation.”[6] Though the defendants agreed with the statutory mandate, it asserted that “the manner in which such an evaluation is conducted is discretionary.”[7] The duty to act claimed by the plaintiff surrounded the use of the phrase “might have crossed the line,” stated by the teacher to a colleague in regards to her relationship with the plaintiff.

However, the Court found that “[t]here was absolutely no other evidence presented… to suggest any other way in which the defendants would be in any way on notice of any inappropriate conduct between [the teacher] and the plaintiff.”[8] After further concluding that no exception to governmental immunity for discretionary acts applied, the Court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.

Should you have any questions regarding school liability or any other education law matter, the attorneys at Maya Murphy, P.C., are experienced and knowledgeable school law practitioners and assist clients in Bridgeport, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, and Westport. If you have any questions or need more information, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.

 


[1] Connecticut General Statutes § 52-557n.

[2] Id. at (a)(2)(B).

[3] Jane Doe v. Board of Education of the City of New Haven, 76 Conn. App. 296, 300 (2003).

[4] Hughes v. City of Hartford, 96 F. Supp. 2d 114, 119 (D.Conn. 2000).

[5] Connecticut General Statutes § 10-151(b).

[6] Lingos v. Town of Clinton et al., 2005 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2746 at 7.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. at 8.

Student’s Negligence Action Against School

Student’s Negligence Action Against School, City of Stamford Survives Motion for Summary Judgment
Case Background

Jesse was a twenty-year-old special education student attending high school in Stamford. She repeatedly informed teachers and school officials about the unwanted romantic advances made by her classmate, Jonathan, but no action was ever taken. On February 28, 2005, Jesse asked to use the restroom located in the special education classroom; she was then sexually assaulted by Jonathan. Both students were sent to the office of the special education coordinator, and Jesse explained what occurred. Despite this knowledge, school officials permitted the two to ride on the same school bus home, during which Jesse was teased and called a liar by Jonathan.

Various teachers and staff, the Board of Education, and even the City of Stamford were later sued in a negligence action filed by Jesse. She contended that “the defendants were aware of [Jonathan’s behavior], but they failed to take appropriate measures to protect [her] from the sexual assault.”[1] However, in their motion for summary judgment, the defendants claimed protection through governmental immunity.

Governmental Immunity

Municipal employees are “liable for the misperformance of ministerial acts, but has qualified immunity in the performance of governmental acts…”[2] Basically, governmental acts are supervisory and discretionary, while ministerial acts must “be performed in a prescribed manner without the exercise of judgment or discretion.”[3] However, even if a defendant successfully claims, as they did in this case, that the acts in question were discretionary, thus invoking governmental immunity, a plaintiff may still defeat a motion for summary judgment by asserting one of three exceptions (discussed in greater detail here): in this case, the identifiable person-imminent harm exception.

The identifiable person-imminent harm exception requires a showing of three things: “(1) an imminent harm; (2) an identifiable victim; and (3) a public official to whom it is apparent that his or her conduct is likely to subject that victim to that harm.”[4] A person will be deemed “identifiable… if the harm occurs within a limited temporal and geographical zone, involving a temporary condition;”[5] a harm is imminent if it is “ready to take place within the immediate future.”[6]

The Court’s Decision

In discussing the motion to dismiss, the Court agreed that Jesse was an identifiable victim of the assault, but she failed to meet the imminent harm requirement. There was no evidence on the record as to when the previous sexual advances were made, nor did she show that the defendants should have known the sexual assault would take place on or about February 28, 2005.[7] However, the Court agreed that the exception was satisfied as to the school officials’ conduct in allowing the two to ride home together:

[Two school officials] admit in their affidavits that they knew some sort of sexual conduct had occurred between [Jesse] and [Jonathan]. Despite this fact, they did not stop [Jesse] from taking the bus with [Jonathan]. At that time, [Jesse] was an identifiable victim of harassment by [Jonathan], and the risk was limited in geographic and temporal scope because [Jesse] and [Jonathan] were riding the bus together and the risk only lasted the duration of the bus ride home. Moreover, the risk of harm was arguably imminent because the dismissal bell had just sounded to release the students early because of a snowstorm, and the bus would presumably be leaving soon thereafter.

Thus, the Court denied the motion for summary judgment as to most of the counts in the complaint (it granted the motion as to one negligence per se count). Although the lawsuit was later withdrawn[8] by Jesse, this case nonetheless serves as another example of a student and/or parent surviving a motion for summary judgment in the face of defendants asserting governmental immunity protection.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.

Should you have any questions about any education law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.

 


[1] Estrada v. Stamford Board of Education et al., Superior Court, judicial district of Stamford, Docket No. CT 06 5002313. 2010 Conn. Super. LEXIS 3022 (November 19, 2010, Tobin, J.).

[2] Bonington v. Westport, 297 Conn. 297, 306, 999 A.2d 700 (2010).

[3] Id.

[4] Cotto v. Board of Education, 294 Conn. 265, 273, 984 A.2d 58 (2009).

[5] Id. at 275-76.

[6] Stavrakis v. Price, Superior Court, judicial district of Litchfield, Docket No. CV 10 6001285, 2010 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2257 (September 7, 2010, Roche, J.).

[7] See Footnote 1.

[8] http://civilinquiry.jud.ct.gov/CaseDetail/PublicCaseDetail.aspx?DocketNo=FSTCV065002313S

Material Issues Surrounding Circumstances of Student’s Suicide

On November 4, 2003, Terence Leary, a Wesleyan University (Wesleyan) student and pitcher on the school’s baseball team,[1] called the campus public safety officers complaining about a panic attack he was experiencing. Although Terence was transported by the officers to a nearby hospital, they simply dropped him off and departed “without further investigating or securing medical attention for him.” Soon thereafter, Terence left the hospital because he “couldn’t take it”[2] and committed suicide by drowning in a nearby creek. His death “sent ripples across the campus.”[3]

Allegations Against the School

Terence’s family elected to sue Wesleyan under a negligence theory, arguing that the school “(1) hired and retained inadequate safety personnel; (2) failed to properly train its security personnel; and (3) did not follow appropriate measures for handling distressed students.”[4] It further alleged:

[T]he security personnel (1) knew or should have known that Terence Leary was in a distressed condition, had suicidal tendencies and was a threat to himself, and they failed to investigate or provide Leary with adequate care; (2) failed to make sure Terence Leary received adequate treatment at the hospital; and (3) the university failed to conduct a proper investigation into Leary’s mental history.[5]

Wesleyan filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking dismissal of the lawsuit. It countered that Terence’s death was caused by his own negligent actions; thus, they were not liable. It further contended that it owed no duty to Terence because the law does not recognize a special relationship between a university and its students.

Connecticut law does not recognize a general duty to protect others from harming themselves, unless there is a special relationship between the two parties. A “duty arises particularly in special relationships where the plaintiff is typically in some respect particularly vulnerable and dependent upon the defendant who, correspondingly, holds considerable power over the plaintiff’s welfare.”[6] Thus, a threshold inquiry is whether one party had custody or control of the other party.

The Court’s Decision

In this case, the Court found that the public safety officers, as agents of Wesleyan, had custody or control of Terence, because their “status as police officers created the perception that they controlled the situation.”[7] As such, they had the ability to prevent Terence from leaving the hospital prior to receiving medical attention.

The Court went to great length describing liability for “gratuitously undertaking to render services to another… [which is] based on the control that the individual has in the circumstances, and the power he assumes over the plaintiff’s welfare.”[8] A person will be liable for negligent performance of this undertaking[9] because “one [who] takes charge and control of [a] situation… is regarded as entering into a relation which is attenuated with responsibility.”[10] The Court further noted the great extent to which Wesleyan provided emergency services and information to its student body, and found that the officer’s actions actually increased the risk of harm to Terence.[11]

A Foreseeable Tragedy

Finally, the Court determined that Terence’s suicide was foreseeable, even though he had not previously made any threats on the night of his death or beforehand. Based on the transcript of Terence’s emergency phone call, a security expert for the plaintiff testified that “[Wesleyan’s] public safety officials should have recognized that [Terence] was in a mental crisis and could have been harmful to himself,” but failed to follow the provisions of Wesleyan’s own public policy manual that specifically addresses how to handle student mental health crises.[12]

As the Court further noted, these policies “provided evidence that the defendant was aware that suicide was a general risk, when dealing with an individual who was in mental distress.”[13] Thus, the motion for summary judgment was denied as to the negligence claim because of genuine issues of material fact related to control and custody of Terence and his mental distress when he placed the emergency call.

Conclusions

Increasingly, we are seeing Connecticut courts willing to hold elementary and secondary schools as well as colleges and universities responsible for tortious or negligent acts committed against students. If you personally or, if a parent, your child was the victim of an assault or other occurrence while under the supervision of school personnel, it is important that you seek an experienced school law practitioner to understand your rights and courses of action. Should you have any questions regarding negligence liability or any education law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq


 

[1] “Friends, family unite to share memories of Leary,” by Miriam Gottfried. Published November 14, 2003. Accessed October 8, 2012: http://wesleyanargus.com/2003/11/14/friends-family-unite-to-share-memories-of-leary/

[2] “Student’s death stuns Wesleyan community,” by Miriam Gottfried. Published November 7, 2003. Accessed October 8, 2012: http://wesleyanargus.com/2003/11/07/student%E2%80%99s-death-stuns-wesleyan-community/

[3] Id.

[4] Douglas Leary v. Wesleyan University, 2009 Conn. Super. LEXIS 621 at 2.

[5] Id.

[6] Coville v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, 57 Conn. App. 275, 281 (2000).

[7] Leary, supra at 12-13.

[8] Id. at 17-18, citing McClure v. Fairfield University, Superior Court, judicial district of Waterbury, Docket No. CV 000159028 (June 19, 2003, Gallagher, J.) (35 Conn. L. Rptr. 169, 2003 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1778)

[9] Coville, supra 57 Conn. App. 281.

[10] McClure, supra, 35 Conn. L. Rptr. 169, 2003 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1778.

[11] Leary, supra, at 22-23.

[12] Id. at 27.

[13] Id. at 33.

Another Case Against the School District, Town Jumps Summary Judgment Hurdle

In a negligence action, the Superior Court of Connecticut at Danbury denied a motion for summary judgment filed by the Town of New Milford, the New Milford Board of Education, and several school employees (collectively the defendants). The Court was not persuaded that the defendants enjoyed governmental immunity from suit, or the claim that they did not owe a duty to a student-victim assaulted by another student on school grounds.

Case Details

In this case, the plaintiff was the target of repeated bullying and harassment from a classmate, Kevin, during his freshman and sophomore years in high school. He endured pushing and shoving, being struck by a stack of school books, menacing stares, and even derogatory “gay” remarks from Kevin. The plaintiff constantly complained to various school administrators, though no meaningful action was ever taken. This culminated to a full-blown assault of the plaintiff at Kevin’s hands outside the school cafeteria.

The plaintiff sued the defendants, arguing that they had a duty to protect him from Kevin and failed to do so. “The plaintiff contends that [one individual defendant] had a duty to compel compliance with school rules and to prevent bullying and harassment… [as well as ] a legal duty to be alert to possible situations that might include bullying and to inform the administration immediately of such events.”[1] In addition, he claimed that governmental immunity was inapplicable, because he was an identifiable victim to an imminent harm. Finally, he asserted town liability because the Board of Education was an agent for the town in “mandating control” over the public high school.[2]

Municipal employees are “liable for the misperformance of ministerial acts, but has qualified immunity in the performance of governmental acts…”[3] Basically, governmental acts are supervisory and discretionary, while ministerial acts must “be performed in a prescribed manner without the exercise of judgment or discretion.”[4] However, even if a defendant successfully claims that the acts in question were discretionary, thus invoking governmental immunity, a plaintiff may still defeat a motion for summary judgment by asserting one of three exceptions (discussed in greater detail here): in this case, the identifiable person-imminent harm exception.

Identifiable Person-Imminent Harm Exception

The identifiable person-imminent harm exception requires a showing of three things: “(1) an imminent harm; (2) an identifiable victim; and (3) a public official to whom it is apparent that his or her conduct is likely to subject that victim to that harm.”[5] A person will be deemed “identifiable… if the harm occurs within a limited temporal and geographical zone, involving a temporary condition;”[6] a harm is imminent if it is “ready to take place within the immediate future.”[7]

The Court sided with the plaintiff and denied summary judgment as to all defendants. It noted, “The [board of education’s] duty to supervise students is performed to the benefit of the municipality;”[8] in this case, the plaintiff’s claim didn’t involve his education, but rather “the inability of certain teachers and staff at New Milford High School to supervise and maintain control on its premises for the protection of its students.”[9] 

A duty to supervise students is not confined to just younger children, but also includes high school students because a gathering “in large numbers at lunch time or at sporting events would certainly seem to present a risk of incidents such as the one involved in this case occurring [an assault at school].”[10] Thus, on all grounds asserted by the defendants, the motion for summary judgment was denied.

This case, Straiton v. New Milford Board of Education, et al, appears to be continuing through the courts with a hearing scheduled for October 19, 2012. It may be found on the Judicial Branch website under DBD-CV10-6003255-S.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.

Bullying in schools has become a serious problem, and increasingly courts are willing to permit the case to proceed beyond a motion for summary judgment, despite claims of governmental immunity or no duty owed to the students. If you are the parent of a child who has been bullied or assaulted, despite repeated unaddressed complaints to administration, it is imperative that you consult with an experienced and knowledgeable school law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding bullying or other education law matters, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.

 


[1] Straiton v. New Milford Board of Education et al., 2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 773 at 15.

[2] Id. at 11.

[3] Bonington v. Westport, 297 Conn. 297, 306, 999 A.2d 700 (2010).

[4] Id.

[5] Cotto v. Board of Education, 294 Conn. 265, 273, 984 A.2d 58 (2009).

[6] Id. at 275-76.

[7] Stavrakis v. Price, Superior Court, judicial district of Litchfield, Docket No. CV 10 6001285, 2010 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2257 (September 7, 2010, Roche, J.).

[8] Purzycki v. Fairfield, 244 Conn. 101, 112 (1998).

[9] Straiton, supra at 12-13.

[10] Maretz v. Huxley, Superior Court, judicial district of New Haven, Docket. No. CV 07 5011978 (January 12, 2009, Corradino, J.)