The district may be liable for what the teacher did. 504 Coordinators take note!

The lawsuit alleges that Round Rock ISD intentionally discriminated against a student based on disability.  However, the only person accused of knowingly discriminating against the student is the journalism teacher.  Can the district be held liable for something that a classroom teacher did? 

Yes, if the suit is based on disability discrimination under Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

There are two important legal nuggets we can learn from this case.  First, the theory of “vicarious liability” (also known as “respondeat superior” for those who prefer Latin) is available in a 504/ADA case.   Second, the “intent” of the district will be determined by “inferences” which are determined by the fact finder.  Let me explain why this matters.

VICARIOUS LIABILITY.  Vicarious liability is very common in negligence cases filed over bodily injuries.  For example, if you slip and fall at the grocery store because some minimum wage employee failed to mop up a spill fast enough, you can successfully sue the owner of the grocery store.  If the doctor operated on your healthy left knee rather than the injured right knee because some low level hospital employee put the magic marker X on the wrong leg, you may be able to pin liability on the hospital chain.  I expect the ubiquitous Thomas J. Henry is very familiar with vicarious liability cases. Vicarious liability allows you to reach the Deep Pocket Defendant over some act of negligence by The Little Guy.

Lawsuits against school districts based on federal law do not generally allow for vicarious liability. But 504/ADA is the exception.  Thus this case, where the plaintiff alleges that a journalism teacher intentionally “exploited” a student’s disability (Anorexia Nervosa) by highlighting it in a feature article in the school yearbook.  The suit alleges that the teacher never sought parental permission for the interviews and photographs of the student.  The plaintiff does not allege that anyone above the level of the teacher was in on this.  It did not matter. The court held that the school district can be held liable if it is proven that one teacher intentionally discriminated based on disability.

Ironically, the teacher was dismissed from the case a long time ago, due to the fact neither 504 nor the ADA permit personal liability. So it’s just the RRISD that is left to deal with this suit. We told you about the teacher getting dismissed from the case in the Daily Dawg on April 20, 2020.

INTENT.  To recover damages in a 504/ADA case, you have to prove that the discrimination was not just based on disability. You also have to prove that the discrimination was intentional.  In this case the parents are seeking to recover over $162,000 in medical expenses they incurred after their daughter “went into a psychic and physical tailspin” when she stopped eating, allegedly due to the yearbook story, the interviews, the photographs and ensuing gossip and social media posts.   The court did not conclude that the district intended to discriminate against this girl, but it did hold that there were sufficient “inferences” that could be taken from the alleged facts to support that conclusion. Moreover, there is this statement in the opinion:

Intent is usually shown only by inferences.  Inferences are for a fact-finder and we are not that.

Context: the court was ruling on the district’s Motion to Dismiss, which required the court to give the benefit of the doubt on all inferences to the plaintiff.  If “inferences” cannot be assessed until “the fact-finder” dives into the evidence in detail you have a much more expensive piece of litigation. The cost of settlement goes up.

This case merits the serious attention of every 504 Coordinator in the state.  If the district faces potential liability for the actions and omissions of every teacher who is responsible for implementing a Section 504 plan, we have a lot of training and supervision to do.

The case is S.C. v. Round Rock ISD, decided by the federal court for the Western District of Texas on September 4, 2020.  We found it in Special Ed Connection at 77 IDELR 101. 


Tomorrow: Have you ever ridden a mechanical bull?