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Governmental Immunity

DID GOVERNMENTAL IMMUNITY BAR THE EMPLOYEE’S AWARD OF ATTORNEY’S FEES?

Case citation:  Manbeck v. Austin ISD, __S.W.3d __, 2012 WL 3800876 (Tex. 2012).

Summary:   Charles Manbeck, an employee for the Austin Independent School District, injured himself on the job.  The school district, a self-insured governmental entity, acknowledged that Manbeck had been injured but disputed whether the compensable injury extended to two alleged conditions related to Manbeck’s back and right shoulder.  The case went through the Texas Workforce Commission’s administrative process, and Manbeck succeeded at each level.

The school district then sought judicial review of the administrative rulings.  Manbeck filed a counterclaim seeking attorney’s fees.  Texas Labor Code § 408.221(c) provides that an “insurance carrier that seeks judicial review . . . of a final decision of the appeals panel . . . is liable for reasonable and necessary attorney’s fees  . . . incurred by the claimant as a result of the insurance carrier’s appeal if the claimant prevails on an issue on which judicial review is sought by the insurance carrier. . . .”  The school district ultimately dropped its case, which left only Manbeck’s counterclaim for attorney’s fees.  A jury later awarded Manbeck more than $53,000 in fees.  An appeals court reversed, but only with respect to fees related to Manbeck’s requests for attorney’s fees.  The Texas Supreme Court agreed to hear the school district’s appeal of the fee award.

Ruling:   The Texas Supreme Court reversed the attorney’s fee award against the school district.  The school district argued for the first time that governmental immunity from suit barred the award of attorney’s fees.  Manbeck argued that the district had waived its governmental immunity defense by failing to raise it before the trial court or court of appeals.  The Texas Supreme Court held, however, that the defense of sovereign immunity sufficiently implicates subject matter jurisdiction to conclude that the defense may be raised for the first time on appeal.  The Court cited its decision, Rusk State Hospital v. Black, decided the same day.  Consistent with Rusk, the Court held in this case that Austin ISD could assert its governmental immunity for the first time on appeal.

The Court held further that immunity barred Manbeck’s claim for attorney’s fees.  The fee-shifting provision applies against governmental entities under the Political Subdivisions Law, which makes portions of the Workers’ Compensation Act applicable to certain political subdivisions.  However, Texas Labor Code § 504.002(c) provides that neither the Political Subdivisions Law or the Workers’ Compensation Act authorizes a cause of action for damages against political subdivisions beyond those authorized by the Texas Tort Claims Act.  Further § 504.002 states that
“[n]othing in this chapter waives sovereign immunity or creates a new cause of action.”

According to the Supreme Court, the Political Subdivisions Law did not waive the district’s right to governmental immunity.  The remedies available under the Political Subdivisions Law are limited to those available under the Tort Claims Act, which does not provide for an award of attorney’s fees.  Because the Political Subdivisions Law does not “clearly and unambiguously” waive the district’s governmental immunity under the facts of this case, the Texas Supreme Court reversed the award of attorney’s fees to Manbeck.

Things to Remember:   This is an important decision, limiting attorney’s fee liability against school districts.

THE SCHOOL DISTRICT WAS ENTITLED TO GOVERNMENTAL IMMUNITY

Case citation:  Henderson v. Grand Prairie ISD, 2012 WL 4801374 (N.D. Tex. 2012) (unpublished).

Summary:  Angel Henderson sued the school district alleging violations of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and intentional infliction of emotional distress.  The school district, in response, sought dismissal of the claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Ruling:  The trial court dismissed Henderson’s claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress.  A Texas governmental entity generally is immune from tort liability unless the legislature waives that immunity.  The Texas Tort Claims Act waives governmental immunity for school districts only when the injury arises from the negligent use or operation of a motor vehicle.  In addition, governmental immunity is not waived for intentional torts.  Henderson’s claim here for intentional infliction of emotional distress is an intentional tort.  Thus, the claim was barred by governmental immunity.

State-Created Danger

DID THE STUDENT’S SUIT RAISE A STATE-CREATED DANGER CLAIM?

Case citation:  Dixon v. Alcorn County School District, 2012 WL 6019053 (5th Cir. 2012) (unpublished).

Summary:   Ruby Carol was a fourth grader in the Alcorn County School District during the 2009-10 school year.  Another student, L.L., also attended school in Ruby’s class.  L.L. was a special education student with a history of emotional outbursts and misbehavior.  Although he had not attacked any other children, he exhibited aggressive behavior, made disturbing remarks, and used violent imagery.  School officials knew of L.L.’s behavior problems.  In fact, the school principal and district curriculum supervisor had expressed their opinion that he should not be in the regular education setting.  The students’ teacher also documented concerns that L.L. would injure her or other students.

In February of 2010, L.L. targeted Ruby on two occasions.  On one day, when she was absent, L.L. indicated that he was glad that she was not there.  On another occasion, he told her to, “Stop looking at me, you enemy!”  L.L.’s behavior toward Ruby escalated in March 2010, when Ruby accidently bumped into him when she was waiting to sharpen a pencil.  L.L. grabbed Ruby, held her head against the wall, and proceeded to rub a Clorox cleaning wipe into her eye.  During this outburst, he told her that she was a “fat little bitch” and that he was “washing **** germs out of her eye.”

Ruby’s mother filed suit against the school district, the superintendent, the principal, and special education instructor.  The mother alleged that the school deprived Ruby of substantive due process under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by failing to remove L.L. from Ruby’s classroom when the school became aware of his violent propensities.  The defendants requested judgment in their favor prior to trial and the trial court granted that request.  Ruby’s mother appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Ruling:   The Fifth Circuit affirmed the pretrial judgment in favor of the district defendants.  The main issue on appeal was whether the appeals court should adopt the “state-created danger” theory of liability under the facts of this case.  The appeals court recently made it clear in Doe v. Covington County School District, that substantive due process does not impose a duty on state actors to protect citizens from harm inflicted by private actors.  Further, the Fifth Circuit has consistently declined to adopt the “state-created danger” theory of liability.

Nevertheless, the appeals court went on to analyze whether the claims in Ruby’s case made out a “state-created danger” claim.  To establish a due process claim under that theory, a plaintiff would have to show that (1) the environment created by the state actor was dangerous, (2) the state actor knew it was dangerous, and (3) the state actor used its authority to create an opportunity that would not otherwise have existed for the third party’s crime to occur.  The appeals court emphasized in this case that it is not enough to allege that the school is aware of some general deficiency in its policies.  “Rather, the school must be aware of an immediate danger to a specific and identifiable student.”

In this case, the parent argued that Ruby was a known victim of L.L. because of the two incidents that occurred in February when he stated he was glad she was absent and when he told her not to look at him.  The parent also pointed to the teacher’s documented fear of injury to herself or her students.  However, the appeals court held that this was not enough to make Ruby a known object of L.L.’s assault.  According to the appeals court, “Sad as the facts of this case may be, the record makes clear that Ruby Carol was merely one student among many who faced a generalized risk resulting from the school’s attempt to integrate a mentally disabled child into a normal school environment.”  The state-created danger theory requires a known victim.  A general risk of harm is not sufficient to satisfy that requirement.  Thus, based on the facts of this case, the appeals court declined to adopt the “state-created danger” theory of liability.

Things to Remember:   The “state-created danger” claim is a popular theory of liability in bullying cases.  However, the Fifth Circuit has consistently rejected these claims as it did here. 

Bullying

WAS THE SCHOOL DISTRICT ENTITLED TO DISMISSAL OF THE BULLYING SUIT?

Case citation:  Williams-Grant v. Arlington ISD, 2012 WL 5871595 (N.D. Tex. 2012) (unpublished).

Summary:  Amena Williams-Grant and Hamilton Grant filed suit without the assistance of legal counsel, on behalf of their son, Travon Grant, against the Arlington Independent School District.  The parents claimed that Travon had been bullied at school by a fellow student, Jasmine.  According to the suit, after the parents complained about the bullying, school officials moved Jasmine to a different class.  Despite that action, Jasmine allegedly continued to bully Travon on the playground of their elementary school.  As a result, the parents claimed that Travon said that he wanted to kill himself.  The school district sought dismissal of the suit.

Ruling:  The trial court dismissed the bullying suit against the school district.  The parents failed to allege facts that would establish a violation of Travon’s constitutional rights or liability against the district under applicable anti-discrimination statutes.  Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the parents had to allege that (1) a constitutional violation occurred and caused injury, and (2) the defendant can be held liable for that violation.

The parents alleged a violation of Travon’s equal protection rights.  However, they failed to allege that he was treated differently from similarly-situated students.  Further, the parents did not state any facts indicating that the district acted with discriminatory intent.  The parents did not establish municipal liability against the school district by alleging that the constitutional violation occurred as a result of a school district policy or custom of the district’s final policymaker.  Nor was there any indication that the district acted with deliberate indifference toward Travon.  Thus, the district was entitled to dismissal of the Equal Protection claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

The trial court next considered whether the parents had stated claims under § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibit discrimination on the basis of a disability.  The trial court held that the lawsuit did not contain any allegations that would support a conclusion that Travon was discriminated against based on a disability.  The parents’ conclusory allegations, without more, were not enough to support those § 504 and ADA claims.

The trial court, likewise, held that claims under Title IX were without merit.  Title IX provides that “[n]o person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participating in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”  Here, although the student who allegedly bullied Travon was female, there is no indication that the girl’s actions were based on Travon’s gender.  Further, there is no allegation that the district’s response was based on his gender.  Thus, the parents could not maintain a Title IX claim.  The trial court dismissed the bullying claims against the school district.

Qualified Immunity

WAS THE SUPERINTENDENT ENTITLED TO QUALIFIED IMMUNITY?

Case citation:  Igbokwe v. Dallas County Schools, 2012 WL 4512489 (N.D. Tex. 2012) (unpublished).

Summary:  Obi E. Igbokwe, Richard Barge, Jimmy Harris, Gwen Jenkins, LeBruce Thomas, Belen Hernandez, Octavio Velasquez, Barbara Welch, Gail Medlock, and Shirley Gray worked for the Dallas County Schools (DCS) as bus drivers.  At the beginning of the 2010-11 school year, their bus routes were transferred from the Don Shield Service Center to the North Dallas Service Center.  They requested that they remain at the Don Shield Service Center but the requests were denied.  According to the bus drivers, the transfer required them to drive longer hours, causing economic hardship.  As a result, they took their concerns to Superintendent Rick Sorrells.

After the transfer, DCS provided the bus drivers with a shuttle that transported them from Don Shield Service Center to the North Dallas Service Center.  The shuttle was provided as a courtesy to the drivers.  However, the drivers believed that they should have been paid for the time spent on the shuttle, while in transit from one service center to the other.  In June of 2011, the drivers were notified that the shuttle would be discontinued and that the drivers would have to provide their own transportation.  Further, if an employee did not want to provide his own transportation, they would need to transfer to another service center.  Prior to the start of the 2011-12 school year, however, the DCS placed a freeze on all transfers.  Thus, the drivers were not allowed to return to the Don Shield Service Center.

The drivers filed suit against the DCS and Sorrells individually alleging violations of federal fair labor laws and their federal civil rights.  They proceeded without the assistance of legal counsel.  The DCS and Sorrells sought dismissal of the lawsuit, alleging that the drivers had not alleged sufficient facts to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.

Ruling:  The trial court dismissed the bus drivers’ lawsuit.  The trial court observed that qualified immunity protects government officials from suit if their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.  In this case, other than taking their concerns to Sorrells, the suit did not allege that Sorrells was involved in the transfer decision.  The evidence showed that the DCS had the right to transfer employees.  Sorrells indicated that he would investigate their concerns.  Further, there were no allegations that Sorrells was involved in any decisions regarding the shuttle other than extending it at the drivers’ request.  Because the lawsuit did not state sufficient facts to support a claim, Sorrells was entitled to qualified immunity.

The trial court also dismissed the claims against the DCS.  To sustain a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the drivers had to allege that a DCS        policy or custom caused a violation of a federally protected right.  Here, the drivers failed to identify any policy, custom, or practice that resulted in a violation of their federally protected rights.  Because the bus drivers’ lawsuit failed to state sufficient facts to sustain claims against either Sorrells or the DCS, the trial court dismissed the suit.