Sometimes a school district is legally responsible for the wrongful actions of its employees. Sometimes it is not. Today we offer an illustration of how the legal doctrine of respondent superior produces this distinction.
Consider the following two scenarios.
Scenario One: A journalism teacher talks a student with an eating disorder into being the subject of a feature article in the school yearbook focusing on her condition. The teacher does not tell the parents about this or get their permission for the interviews and photographs. The teacher’s actions violated terms in the student’s 504 plan. After the publication there were ugly comments in person and online that caused mental anguish to the student.
Scenario Two: A school resource officer grooms a 6th grade girl and subsequently sexually assaults her more than 20 times.
Which is worse? I think I know your answer to that question.
But school district liability does not depend on which is worse. It depends on the basis for the lawsuit. The lawsuit that arose out of Scenario One was based on disability discrimination—Section 504 and the ADA. The suit from Scenario Two was based on sex discrimination—Title IX. Respondeat superior applies to a suit under 504 and the ADA, but not to one based on Title IX. Why? The short answer is that this is the way the higher level courts have interpreted the two statutes. The long answer is too long and complicated for explanation in the Daily Dawg.
I expect that intelligent, thoughtful people without a legal education would think that a school that employs a rapist is more likely to be headed for trouble than a school that employs a teacher who ignored a 504 plan. But those intelligent, thoughtful people don’t know how the courts have applied respondeat superior. Roughly translated, this Latin phrase means that the employer is liable for the wrongful actions of its employees, even when higher ups in the organization have done nothing wrong. The courts have held that respondeat superior does not apply to Title IX. But it does apply to 504/ADA.
Does that make sense? I leave that to you.
The case about the eating disorder is S.C. v. Round Rock ISD. The case is not over, but in the most recent decision, on January 19, 2021, the federal court refused to dismiss the claims under 504/ADA. So liability of the district remains a possibility. You can find that decision at Special Ed Connection at 121 LRP 2552. The case of the SRO and the middle school girl is M.E. v. Alvin ISD. On December 18, 2020, the 5th Circuit dismissed the claim against the district. The SRO is serving a prison sentence and may be held liable in a civil suit. But the district will not have liability because no one in the district, other than the SRO, knew about the sexual abuse, and the legal doctrine with the Latin name does not apply.
DAWG BONE: RESPONDEAT SUPERIOR: SOMETIMES IT APPLIES. SOMETIMES IT DOESN’T.
Tomorrow: Toolbox Tuesday!!