Can One Bad Apple Really Create Liability for the Entire School District?

Yesterday, we examined the 504 and ADA claims raised in a student’s lawsuit against her School District.  Today, we look at claims she brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 against the District and its former high school principal alleging violations of her constitutional rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Vicarious Liability

If you recall from yesterday, the student, Ms. Boggs, made a number of allegations against her high school principal in which she accused him more or less of bullying her.  Her suit against Krum ISD is premised in part on her assertion that the District should pay for the principal’s (alleged) bad acts.

Generally, an employer cannot be held liable under Section 1983 for the conduct of an employee unless that employee has been delegated policymaking authority.  When a governmental entity is sued under Section 1983, the plaintiff must allege and prove that the governmental entity itself caused a violation of constitutional rights through an “official policy,” which the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has defined to include:

  • a policy statement, ordinance, regulation, or decision that is officially adopted and promulgated by the entity’s governing body or by an official to whom such authority has been designated; or
  • a persistent, widespread practice of an entity or its employees, which, although not authorized by officially adopted and promulgated policy, is so common and well settled as to constitute a custom that fairly represents policy.

The point is that courts do not want, for example, a school district, to be saddled with liability because of the bad acts of an employee that are not consistent with the policies of the district.

Which sounds like exactly what Ms. Boggs was angling for, but she managed to plead just enough to beat the District’s motion to dismiss.  Specifically, she alleged that Krum ISD ratified the acts, omissions, and customs of its employees, and thus she alleges she was harmed by “official policy” of the District as defined above.  How would a school district go about “ratifying” the (alleged) bad acts of its employees?  According to Ms. Boggs’ pleadings, basically they just blew off her grievance, issuing a “half-hearted” response at level two and ignoring a “letter of appeal” she submitted to the principal, superintendent, and board.  From a pleadings standpoint, that was enough to convince the Court that all the bad things Ms. Boggs alleged against her principal amounted to the official policy of the District as implemented by a policymaker.

This case is Boggs v. Krum ISD, issued June 1, 2018, out of the Eastern District of Texas, Sherman Division.  You can find the opinion online searching for it by name.


 Tomorrow:  Failure to Train or Supervise and a Splash of Qualified Immunity