Monday, March 29, 2010

School Principal May Be Individually Liable for Teacher's Abuse

A recent Seventh Circuit decision addressed an elementary school principal's potential liability for a music teacher's sexual abuse of students. The students sued the school, the principal and the teacher on several theories of liability, including Title IX, constitutional violations, and state law claims. While the Title IX claims against the school and the state law claims against the teacher are set for trial, the principal moved to dismiss the claims that she had violated the plaintiffs' constitutional rights to equal protection and due process, arguing that she was protected from liability under the doctrine of qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity shields government officials (including public school officials) from individual liability. However, it does not apply when the official is charged with violating the plaintiffs' clearly established constitutional rights. If the substance of the plaintiff's legal argument presents a close call under constitutional law, the official is protected and the lawsuit is dismissed. But if the plaintiff's legal argument is clear winner under constitutional law, then the official is not protected, and the lawsuit may proceed so that the plaintiff can try to prove the facts of her case.

In this case, the Seventh Circuit acknowledged that sexual abuse may violate a student's rights under the Constitution's Equal Protection clause. Moreover, it was "clearly established" at the time of the events giving rise to this case that a supervisor could be liable for condoning, covering up, or turning a blind eye to the abusive conduct of a supervisee. The court agreed with the principal that recent Supreme Court decision, Iqbal v. Ashcroft, requires plaintiffs to allow allege the supervisor's discriminatory intent in such cases. However, In addition, a supervisor charged with violating the Equal Protection Clause for such conduct or indifference must to do with the intent to discriminate. But the court thought that a jury could infer from evidence that the principal helped cover up the teacher's molestation that the principal also had a purpose of discriminating against the girls based on their sex. The court therefore refused to dismiss the equal protection claims against the principal.

The court also held that qualified immunity would not shield the principal from the plaintiff's due process claims. Under the due process clause, citizens have a protected liberty interest in their right to bodily integrity -- a right that is impaired when one is physically molested by a state-employed teacher. The court considered it "clearly established" law at the time of the events in this case that a principal whose own conduct creates or exacerbates the risk that a student will be molested violates the due process clause. As noted, the plaintiffs allege that the principal actively covered up abuse, exacerbating the risk to the students. Therefore, this claim was also outside the scope of the principal's qualified immunity defense, and the principal's liability will also be decided at trial.

Decision is: T.E. v. Grindle, 2010 WL 938047 (7th Cir. Mar. 17, 2010).