According to the court’s opinion in Doe v. Dixon, teacher’s aide Kristy Ray Dixon plead guilty to a charge of Improper Relationship Between Educator and Student, a second degree felony. She was given a ten-year deferred adjudication sentence based on her sexual interaction with a 14-year old boy in Blum ISD.
But she was not held liable in the civil suit filed by the boy’s mother. Nor were any of the other parties held liable.
Remember the O.J. case? He was acquitted in the criminal case, but lost in the civil court. This case went just the opposite way.
The mother filed suit against the teacher’s aide, the principal who supervised her, and the district. In the suit, the mother alleged claims under both federal and state law. The federal claim against the principal was dismissed because the facts alleged in the Complaint did not reach the level of “deliberate indifference.” A principal is not personally liable simply because a person he supervises acts badly. There has to be evidence that the principal knew what was happening and responded with deliberate indifference. That was lacking here.
The federal claim against the BISD was also tossed out. The district is not liable simply because one of its employees acts badly. There has to be evidence that the policy, custom or practice of the district was the cause of the injury. That was lacking here also.
But what about Ms. Dixon? Why is she not liable for her sexual activities with a 14-year old?
The suit sought to impose liability against Dixon in both her “official” and her “individual” capacities. But she can be liable in the “official” capacity only for what she does under “color of” (i.e., authority) of the district. Messing around with a 14-year old boy was not part of her job description, and was not authorized by the district. Therefore, she was not “acting under color of law” when she did this.
So you might assume that the indiscreet teacher’s aide would be liable in her individual capacity. But no. These claims alleged assault and battery, and the intentional infliction of emotional distress. These are state law claims. Under state law, a plaintiff must give notice to a school district professional employee prior to filing suit against that employee. That didn’t happen here. Also, the Texas Civil Practices and Remedies Code specifies that if you sue a school district you are automatically barred from any suit or recovery by the plaintiff against any individual employee regarding the same subject matter. Thus, since she had sued Blum ISD, she could not simultaneously pursue litigation against the principal or the teacher’s aide.
So Ms. Dixon was not held liable by the court for any civil wrong—neither a constitutional violation, nor an assault, nor an intentional infliction of emotional distress. She lost her job and got a lengthy “deferred adjudication” but all things considered, it could have been a lot worse for her.
If Ms. Doe finds that frustrating, just imagine how she will feel when she gets the bill for the principal’s attorneys’ fees. The principal had another defense available to him in connection with the “intentional infliction of emotional distress” claim. He was entitled to “qualified immunity” on that claim. He was a professional employee, acting within the scope of his employment, exercising judgment or discretion and not using force in connection with student discipline. Therefore, he was entitled to immunity from this suit, and John Doe’s mother is responsible for his costs and attorneys’ fees.
So it goes. The case was decided by Walter Smith, federal judge for the Western District of Texas on February 11, 2015. It can be found at 2015 WL 589632.
DAWG BONE: CRIMINAL LIABILITY DOES NOT ALWAYS LEAD TO CIVIL LIABILITY.