Thursday, April 8, 2010

Immunity applies when office holder is sued in his official capacity

The Supreme Court of Ohio today ruled, 6-1, that public officeholders, sued in their official capacity, are immune from liability pursuant to R.C. 2774.02, (political subdivision immunity analysis) rather than the “political subdivision employee” immunity standards set forth in R.C. 2744.03(A)(6).

In that case, the plaintiff sued the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts for publishing her private information online after receiving a traffic citation.

The First District Court of Appeals found that political subdivision employee analysis applied. However, the Supreme Court found that political subdivision analysis applied and that the Clerk of Courts was immune from such suit because it occurred in his official capacity.

The same analysis would be applicable to school board members when sued in their official capacity.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

College of Medicine did not breach contract with student, appeals court rules

Case Western Reserve University did not breach its contract with a student when the school dismissed him from its medical school, the Eighth District Court of Appeals ruled last week.

In that case, the medical student was put on leave after failing four exams during his second year of medical school. He was also required to complete a program focusing on interpersonal communications skills and counseling. After completion of the program, the student would be considered for restarting his second year.

The student went on to repeat his second year at the medical school. However, he was referred to the Committee on Students in Spring 2005 after a faculty member wrote a letter complaining about his behavior in the faculty member's lab (2) an incident that had occurred earlier in his career in which a female student complained that he was harassing her and (3) the student's failure to remediate a failed exam. The Committee required the student to remediate the exam and submit a "fitness for duty" examination.

The fitness for duty exam concluded that the student had a personality disorder and had an inability to perceive or admit to his own mistakes. The report noted that the student believed himself to be superior, was unable to self-evaluate and self-criticize, and is interpersonally exploitative and lacks sympathy. The examiner viewed those traits as a "concern to anyone training a medical student."

Thereafter, the committee reviewed this and other information and decided to dismiss the medical student. He appealed his dismissal, though the committee's decision was ultimately upheld. A Dean of the medical school gave the student the option to withdraw before the letter dismissing him was issued. The student submitted a letter to the Dean withdrawing him, though he could not recall whether he was told that his record would reflect that he withdrew in lieu of dismissal.

The student then filed suit. He claimed that (1) Case was required to provide him with written notice of the grounds upon which the school intended to dismiss him, and with a hearing at which he could be present (2) there are material facts as to whether Case complied with its own contractual procedures in dismissing him.

As to these grounds, the court found that Case, as a private institution, owed no constitutional right of due process. Additionally, the court found that though there was custom to allow the student to be present during the Committee hearing, the custom did not rise to the leval of a contractual obligation.

Furthermore, the student requested declaratory judgment prohibiting the school from placing a notation on his file that he "withdrew in lieu of dismissal." The Court upheld the trial court's refusal to issue a declaratory judgment prohibiting such a notation on the file.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Public school may be liable if employees were reckless, says appeals court

A school district may be liable if its public employees acted recklessly, the 9th district appeals court ruled last week in E.F. v. Oberlin City School District. At the same time, the court ruled that, as to the facts of that particular case, the school district was not liable under other theories of liability.

In that case, E.F., a child with Down syndrome, filed a complaint against the school district, the board of education, and certain employees of the school district after she was purportedly sexually assaulted on school grounds by two boys. The amended
complaint contained counts alleging negligence and recklessness; violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Act; violations of R.C. Chapter 3323; as well as intentional infliction of emotional distress. It also stated that the sexual assault occurred as the result of "extreme lack of teacher oversight."

The defendants sought judgment on the pleadings, requesting that the court find in their favor without a trial. After the plaintiffs answered, the trial court granted the defendants' motion, finding no liability on any of the defendants. The plaintiffs then appealled.

The appeals court agreed with the trial court's findings, except that the Court believed that E.F's cause of action alleging employee recklessness should be able to go forward. Indeed, the amended complaint stated (1) that E.F. was sexually assaulted under circumstances where there was a “recklessness and an extreme
lack of teacher oversight relating to the facts of these incidents," (2) that a substitute teacher was responsible for monitoring the classroom at the time of multiple incidents where E.F. was assaulted (3) that the school was aware that one of the students who attacked E.F. had “a history of *** psychological issues relating to abuse and assault," (4) that “Oberlin Schools recklessly placed these students into a class with mentally handicapped students, such as E.F, with full knowledge of such student’s (sic) propensity to abuse the disabled students in the classroom," (5) that “Defendants also acted recklessly in the monitoring of classrooms which E.F was in” and further that “[a]ll regular teachers and substitute teachers acted recklessly in monitoring the children of his/her classroom by failing to even notice when students disappeared from the classroom.” The complaint also states that the recklessness of teachers “resulted in E.F. being sexually assaulted by the [s]tudents.”

The reversal by the appeals court does not mean that the school district is in fact liable, but rather that the Plaintiffs should have an opportunity to attempt to prove that the school district is liable because its employees acted recklessly.