WAS THE SCHOOL DISTRICT LIABLE FOR BULLYING THAT ALLEGEDLY LED A STUDENT TO COMMIT SUICIDE?
Case citation: Estate of Montana Lance v. Lewisville ISD, _F.3d_, 2014 WL 805452 (5th Cir. 2014).
Editor’s note: The Fifth Circuit decision is the last in a series of court decisions reported by the Legal Digest over the years, stemming from the alleged peer harassment of the Lewisville Independent School District student. Prior decisions have discussed the liability of individual employees of the school district and the district’s efforts to get the lawsuit dismissed based on the pleadings. Here, the main issue before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is whether the school district could be held liable for the alleged peer harassment against the student.
Summary: Montana Lance was a nine-year-old, fourth grade student in the Lewisville Independent School District during the 2009-10 school year. According to the lawsuit filed by Montana’s parents, he received special education services and had been diagnosed with an emotional disturbance, a learning disability, and speech impairment.
The parents claimed that Montana had been the frequent target of bullying at school. A school psychologist assessed Montana and reported that he was “at risk” and had made verbal statements about hurting himself. According to the lawsuit, the assessment was never reviewed or considered by any school personnel. The student’s Admission, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) Committee provided the student with counseling sessions and a behavioral intervention plan (BIP) to address his behavior issues. The parents, however, claimed that the BIP was never used and that the counseling was insufficient to address his suicidal thoughts and depression.
Between early November and December of 2009, Montana was involved in several disciplinary incidents at school that culminated in his suspension and placement in an alternative education setting. The suit alleged that each incident related to bullying by other students, that the parents were not notified, and that the student’s BIP was not used. The boy’s mother tried to appeal the disciplinary placement and indicated that her son had been the victim of bullying. It was alleged further that district employees never investigated any of the bullying complaints. During his placement in the alternative school, Montana admitted to a counselor that he was suicidal, but allegedly no action was taken to notify anyone or assess the boy’s statements.
When Montana returned to his regular school, the bullying continued. According to the suit, after another incident involving the same students, Montana was placed in in-school suspension. Montana was allowed to use the restroom in the school nurse’s office, where he hung himself with his belt. The nurse discovered the bathroom door locked and had to look for a key to open it. Montana had allegedly locked himself in that same bathroom previously.
The parents filed suit alleging that the school district and a number of school officials violated Montana’s right to substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. They also alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The trial court ultimately granted judgment in favor of school officials and the school district, and the parents appealed. This appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals involves the pretrial judgment rendered in favor of the school district.
Ruling: The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court judgment in favor of the district. The appeals court observed that school districts can be liable for failing to provide educational services necessary to satisfy § 504’s requirements to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE). Under this “failure-to-provide” theory, a plaintiff would have to show that the district “refused to provide reasonable accommodations for the handicapped plaintiff to receive the full benefits of the school program.” The parents, in this case, failed to show a violation of § 504 on that basis, because the district had given the student an individualized education program (IEP), to which the parents consented. The parents never challenged the design or implementation of the student’s IEP. Thus, the “failure-to-provide” claim was without merit.
According to the Fifth Circuit, districts can also be held liable under § 504 for discriminating against a disabled student by denying an educational benefit provided to nondisabled peers. The parents claimed that the district was deliberately indifferent to disability-based peer harassment that led Montana to commit suicide. To prevail, the parents had to show (1) Montana was a student with a disability, (2) he was harassed based on his disability, (3) the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive that it altered the condition of his education and created an abusive educational environment, (4) the district knew about the harassment, and (5) the district was deliberately indifferent to the harassment. The appeals court focused on the final element and determined that the district had not been deliberately indifferent to Montana.
The evidence demonstrated that the school district acted reasonably in response to reported bullying of Montana. The district showed that it conducted thorough investigations, issued student discipline when necessary, worked individually with students to address conflicts, contacted parents, and followed up with students. In addition, school personnel worked with each other to address concerns about Montana. The school district documented the steps it took, as well as training it provided to school district personnel. The district also implemented appropriate policies on bullying, harassment, and discrimination. This evidence demonstrated that the district was not deliberately indifferent to Montana.
Under § 1983, the Plaintiffs claimed that the district violated Montana’s due process right to bodily integrity. The appeals court focused on the parents’ “state-created danger” theory of liability under § 1983, which requires evidence that (1) the district used its authority to create a dangerous environment, (2) the district knew it was dangerous, (3) a state actor used their authority to create an opportunity that would not otherwise have existed for the third party’s crime to occur, and (4) the district acted with deliberate indifference to the plight of the student. The parents’ claims failed because the district did not take any action to make Montana more likely to be bullied; but rather, worked to alleviate problems when they arose. In addition, district personnel did not believe that Montana might harm himself or that his suicide was imminent. The district did not know of an immediate danger to Montana. Nor did it create a dangerous environment. Because the evidence was insufficient with respect to each of the claims, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the judgment in favor of the district.
Comments: The parents bore the burden of proving five things to recover under the “peer harassment” theory. If the case had gotten to the stage of an actual trial, it is likely that the district would have contested several of those five facts. But at the pre-trial stage where the district seeks summary judgment, a school district is likely to focus on only the fifth factor—“deliberate indifference.” It is the only factor that focuses on what the district did or did not do. Thus it is the only factor that is within the district’s control. Despite the tragic outcome of this case, the district was able to show that its response to what it knew about could not be fairly characterized as “deliberately indifferent.”
WAS THE PRINCIPAL ENTITLED TO QUALIFIED IMMUNITY IN THE SUIT ALLEGING CHILD MOLESTATION BY A TEACHER?
Case citation: Puckettv. Nelson, Fed. Appx. , 2014 WL 128588 (5th Cir. 2014) (unpublished).
Editor’s note: The Fifth Circuit decision is brief and does not provide a detailed recitation of the facts alleged in the lawsuit. The facts set out below are from the trial court ruling denying the principal’s request for qualified immunity, which is the subject of the appeal to the Fifth Circuit. The trial court decision, Puckett v. Nelson, Dkt. No. 5:11-cv-160, Doc. 86, (E.D. Tex. 2013), is not a published decision.
Summary: Lana Puckett, the mother of a minor student in the Clarksville Independent School District filed suit against a former teacher, the principal, and the school district stemming from alleged sexual molestation of her child by the teacher. The principal sought a pretrial judgment in her favor asserting the defense of qualified immunity. To overcome a claim of qualified immunity, a plaintiff must allege a violation of a clearly established right, and demonstrate that the official’s actions were objectively unreasonable in light of clearly established law. The trial court determined that evidence in this case raised fact issues as to whether (1) there was a causal link between the principal’s actions and the constitutional violation and (2) the principal’s conduct amounted to deliberate indifference. According to the trial court, in light of those fact issues it could not assess whether Nelson’s conduct was objectively reasonable. The principal took an immediate pretrial (interlocutory) appeal of the trial court decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Ruling: The Fifth Circuit denied the interlocutory appeal for lack of jurisdiction, finding that at this stage of the litigation it could not resolve the factual disputes present in the case on the issue of qualified immunity. The plaintiff presented evidence that the principal and the teacher had known each other prior to the teacher’s employment with the district. The teacher engaged in other incidents of inappropriate conduct with students at a prior job and with students at Clarksville ISD. Plaintiff ’s evidence suggested that the principal was aware of inappropriate communication between the teacher and the student in this case and a possible inappropriate relationship between the two. In addition, there was evidence that the principal knew that the teacher did not immediately comply with the principal’s instruction to avoid contact with the student. Disputed fact issues also existed regarding where the sexual contact occurred and when the relationship between the teacher and the student ended. The principal maintained that she conducted an investigation, but could not substantiate the allegations against the teacher. However, during the course of her investigation, the principal failed to contact the student, the student’s parent, or law enforcement officials.
The Fifth Circuit observed that it does not have jurisdiction to resolve factual disputes on the issue of qualified immunity during a pretrial appeal. The appeals court stated: “Based upon the record and briefs before us, there clearly exists a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether there is a causal link between [the principal’s] conduct and the constitutional violation and whether [the principal’s] conduct amounted to deliberate indifference.” Because factual disputes existed on those issues, the appeals court dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction.
DID THE STATE OF LOUISIANA ENJOY SOVEREIGN IMMUNITY IN THE SUIT CHALLENGING STATE LAW CREATING A VOUCHER PROGRAM?
Case citation: M.C. Moore v. Louisiana Bd. Of Elementary and Secondary Education, F.3d , 2014 WL 718423 (5th Cir. 2014).
Summary: In 2010, a federal district court in Louisiana entered a Consent Decree, stemming from a lawsuit originally filed against the Tangipahoa Parish School Board in 1965. The Consent Decree required various actions and defined various responsibilities of the School Board. In 2012, the Louisiana State Legislature implemented two Acts that created additional requirements. Act 1 of the 2012 legislature adjusted standards for evaluating and discharging ineffective teachers. Act 2 permitted Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) funds to be allocated to individual students as vouchers to attend private schools or pay for supplemental courses from various other education providers. In 2012, two parents filed suit on behalf of their children against the School Board, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (“BESE”), the Louisiana Department of Education, and John White, Superintendent of Education, pursuant to the All Writs Act. The action sought an injunction prohibiting the implementation of the two acts passed in the 2012 Regular Session of the Louisiana Legislature on the basis that implementation of the acts would violate the Consent Decree.
Following a hearing, the district court granted an injunction and the School Board appealed. Meanwhile, the Louisiana State Supreme Court held that Act 2, related to the voucher program, was unconstitutional under the Louisiana Constitution. According to the Court, Act 2’s diversion of funds from the school districts to educational entities other than the public schools violated the Louisiana State Constitution. In the School Board’s appeal of the district court’s injunction to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, it argued that the Louisiana Supreme Court decision mooted all issues pertaining to the School Board and the implementation of Act 2. Thus, the issues before the Fifth Circuit were whether all issues pertaining to Act 2 were moot as to all defendants and whether the district court abused its discretion by enjoining the implementation of Act 1.
Ruling: The Fifth Circuit ruled that the injunction against the School Board should be vacated and the suit dismissed. The Fifth Circuit first determined that the claims raised by the parents concerning Act 2’s creation of a voucher program were moot. The claims stemmed from the diversion of funds from the public school system to private schools and other non-public educational organizations. According to the suit, the diverted funds violated the Consent Decree because it impaired the ability of the School Board to comply with its mandates. The Louisiana Supreme Court, however, has already held that Act 2 violated the Louisiana Constitution which requires that all MFP funds be allocated to public schools and not diverted elsewhere. Due to this ruling, there was no longer any threat to the Consent Decree or the students of Tangipahoa Parish from the diversion of funds to non-public schools. Thus, all issues related to Act 2 were moot.
The Fifth Circuit next determined that jurisdiction did not exist in federal court over the claims related to Act 1. Under the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution, states enjoy sovereign immunity unless the state has specifically waived its sovereign immunity or Congress has clearly abrogated it. If sovereign immunity has not been waived or abrogated, federal courts are without jurisdiction over suits against a state, a state agency, or a state official in his official capacity. The Fifth Circuit recognized, however, that a federal court may enjoin a state official in his official capacity from taking future actions in furtherance of a state law that offends federal law or the United States Constitution. Here, according to the Fifth Circuit, the state defendants enjoyed sovereign immunity and there was no showing that Act 1 would cause the defendants to violate federal law. Thus, jurisdiction did not exist over the claims related to Act 1. The Fifth Circuit vacated the injunction and returned the case to the trial court with instructions to dismiss the suit.
Comments: Of course the backstory to this case is the political fight over the use of public money to support pri- vate school. That battle will continue in Louisiana, Texas and elsewhere.