Potential Liability for Verification of Employment Forms?

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This morning, the Illinois Supreme Court handed down its decision in Doe v. White [pdf].

Doe arises from a teacher sexual abuse case. As explained in detail here, a grade school teacher was disciplined for sexual misconduct by his then-employer, the McLean County School District. Rather than reporting the matter to state authorities, McLean purportedly took a variety of steps to “pass” the teacher to another school district – Urbana – including negotiating a severance agreement which concealed the teacher’s misconduct, creating a falsely positive letter of recommendation and providing a materially false verification of employment form to Urbana. When the teacher abused students at Urbana, the victims and their parents sued the McLean School District and several administrators.

In a majority opinion written by Justice Anne M. Burke, a fractured court affirmed the Appellate Court’s finding that the defendants owed the injured students a tort duty, despite rejecting several grounds cited below. According to the majority, plaintiffs nowhere alleged any affirmative duty to warn Urbana of the teacher’s conduct. Nor did the plaintiffs adequately allege that defendants had a duty to report the teacher’s conduct to state authorities. The majority rejected the Appellate Court’s finding that a false letter of recommendation created a duty as a voluntary undertaking, noting that although the operative complaint alleged that the letter had been created, it never alleged that it had been sent.

Nevertheless, the Court held that a tort duty arose from the McLean administrators’ provision to Urbana of a verification of employment form stating that the teacher had worked for McLean for an entire school year. In fact, the teacher had been suspended twice during the year, and had left McLean before the end of the school year.

Applying the traditional multi-factor test for analyzing the existence of a tort duty, the Court held that it was reasonably foreseeable that the plaintiffs’ injuries would result from defendants’ misrepresentations. Nor was the likelihood of plaintiffs’ injuries remote, since a truthful disclosure of the teacher’s suspensions would likely have been a “red flag” warning Urbana to investigate further. Finally, imposing a duty to complete employment forms with reasonable care did not create an unreasonable burden, nor would any adverse consequences flow from imposing such a burden, according to the Court.

The majority addressed the remaining issues briefly. The public duty rule was inapplicable to the complaint, the Court held, because the plaintiffs neither alleged that the defendants had failed to protect them, or had any affirmative duty to do so. Finally, the majority concluded that the Tort Immunity Act did not immunize defendants’ allegedly willful and wanton conduct.

Doe drew a number of additional opinions. Justice Charles E. Freeman wrote a special concurrence. He emphasized his view that the duty created by the majority opinion was not one to affirmatively inform, but rather a duty to take reasonable care not to present inaccurate information about an individual who might pose a threat to third parties. Justice Freeman further commented that the majority should have taken Doe as a vehicle to finally decide whether the public duty rule remains a viable defense in Illinois, rather than merely concluding that it was inapplicable to the facts.

Justice Rita Garman filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. Although Justice Garman agreed that a tort duty existed, she concluded that the majority’s discussion of the Tort Immunity Act was at best premature. After a lengthy discussion of the relevant law, Justice Garman concluded that there were potentially viable arguments on which the Tort Immunity Act would apply.

Finally, Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier dissented, with Justice Mary Jane Theis joining. Noting that precedent had long held that there was no private right of action for failure to report under the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act, Justice Karmeier characterized the majority’s holding as fashioning a duty to report misconduct by inference – a duty to report facts which would lead the recipient of the report to find the truth. In view of the apparent conflict between the cases interpreting the Act and the majority’s holding, Justice Karmeier criticized the majority for not discussing the Reporting Act. Turning to the majority’s analysis of duty, Justice Karmeier concluded that no duty could arise since it was neither reasonable nor foreseeable that Urbana would rely on the form as the “sole indicator of [the teacher’s] character and his conduct prior to the time he was hired.” Justice Karmeier also concluded that plaintiffs’ injuries were not sufficiently likely to justify imposing a duty.

According to Justice Karmeier, the public duty rule was squarely implicated by the allegations, given plaintiffs’ allegation that defendants breached a duty to protect them. As a result, he argued that the Court should have decided whether the rule remained viable in Illinois. Finally, like Justice Garman, Justice Karmeier disputed the majority’s conclusions that the Tort Immunity Act could not immunize the defendants’ conduct.

 

Published In: Education Updates, Labor & Employment Updates, Personal Injury Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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