Professional employees of Texas school districts have a qualified immunity from liability for acts that are “incident to or within the scope of the duties” of the employee’s job, and involve judgment or discretion. There are exceptions to this in cases involving the use of force in disciplining a student. A recent decision involving a superintendent illustrates how broad this immunity is.
The plaintiffs claimed that the superintendent had informed them that he had obtained a commitment from AT&T, a district vendor, to donate over $10,000 at the annual Laredo International Fair and Exposition (LIFE) where students in the FFA program (Future Farmers of America) would be showing their animals. The superintendent remembered things differently. He said that he had promised to seek a donation from the vendor, and he did. But it was turned down. The plaintiffs ended up spending a little over $10,000 on animals purchased at the auction, thinking that AT&T was good for it. When that turned out not to be the case, they sought reimbursement from the superintendent, claiming he had breached an oral contract.
The suit was filed against the superintendent in his individual capacity. In other words, the plaintiff viewed this as a personal commitment that the superintendent had made, an oral contract that he should be held to. They did not view this as connected to his job.
However, the lawyers representing the superintendent effectively argued that the superintendent’s role in this story, regardless of who you believed, was “incident to” his job duties. The court’s opinion lays out at length the 15 duties of a superintendent spelled out in the Texas Education Code, the six duties assigned to the superintendent and board together, and district policy that lists 31 additional duties under the headings of Educational Leadership, District Management, and Board and Community Relations. The court emphasized two duties in particular:
Create and support connections with community organizations to provide community-wide support for the high achievement of all district students;
Establish mechanisms for community and business involvement in the schools and encourage participation.
That was enough for the court to conclude that whatever the superintendent did or did not do, all of it was “incident to” his duties as superintendent. After all, the LIFE Auction was an important community event, particularly for the students in FFA. The relationship with AT&T, a major vendor, was also important. All parties to the dispute agreed that their interactions were about getting some money to support the FFA and the school. The court summed it up like this:
Although the LIFE auction was not a school-sponsored event and fundraising is not a superintendent duty, we hold the summary judgment evidence shows that Gonzalez’s actions, as alleged by [the plaintiffs], were incident to his duty to “create and support connections with community organizations to provide community-wide support for the high achievement of all district students.”
So the superintendent was immune from liability. Case dismissed.
The qualified immunity statute, Texas Education Code 22.0511, most often comes up when students are physically injured at school due to an alleged negligent act by a school employee. But as this case demonstrates, it can apply in all sorts of other situations as well. This one is Gonzalez v. Johnson, decided by the Court of Appeals in San Antonio on October 27, 2021. We found it at 2021 WL 4976562.
DAWG BONE: LOT OF THINGS ARE “INCIDENT TO” YOUR JOB AS SUPERINTENDENT.
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Tomorrow: warms the Dawg’s heart.