School District and Individual Administrators May Be Held Liable For Failure To Protect Student From Sexual Misconduct By School Employee

The California Supreme Court this year concluded that a public school district may be held vicariously liable for the negligence of its administrative and supervisory employees for hiring, supervising and retaining an employee who sexually harassed and abused a student.  (C.A. v. William S. Hart Union High School District, 53 Cal.4th 861 (2012).)  This liability also potentially extends to individual administrators.

Facts

Student C.A., through a guardian ad litem, brought a lawsuit against his guidance counselor, Roselyn Hubbell (“Hubbell”), William Hart Union High School District (“District”), and “Does 1 through 100” in which he alleged that Hubbell sexually harassed and abused him.  He alleged the defendants knew that Hubbell had engaged in sexually-related conduct with minors in the past, they were put on notice that she had the propensity to engage in such conduct, and they knew or should have known she would commit wrongful sexual acts with minors.  The Student asserted his injuries were not only the result of Hubbell’s actions, but also due to the failure of the District’s employees to properly hire, train and supervise Hubbell and to prevent her from harming the Student.  

The District argued the Student could not state a claim against the District because there is no statutory authority for holding a public entity liable for negligent supervision, hiring or retention of its employees.  The trial court granted judgment in favor of the District and the court of appeal affirmed.

Decision

The California Supreme Court reversed the decision of the court of appeal and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.  The Court concluded the Student’s theory of vicariously liability for the negligent hiring, retention, and supervision of Hubbell is a legally viable theory.  School personnel owe those students who are under their supervision a duty of ordinary care, and therefore a school district may be held vicariously liable for a breach of that duty.  The Court held that if a school district’s supervisory or administrative employee breaches his or her duty by exposing a student to a foreseeable danger of molestation by his or her guidance counselor, liability falls on the school district, provided that no immunity provision applies.

The Court noted that school district’s special relationship with students arises from the mandatory character of school attendance and the school personnel’s comprehensive control over students.  Because of this special relationship, “the duty of care owed by school personnel includes the duty to use reasonable measures to protect students from foreseeable injury at the hands of third parties acting negligently or intentionally.”  Furthermore, the responsibility for student safety does not fall on instructional personnel alone.  “ School principals and other supervisory employees, to the extent their duties include overseeing the educational environment and the performance of teachers and counselors, also have the responsibility of taking reasonable measures to guard pupils against harassment and abuse from foreseeable sources, including any teachers or counselors they know or have reason to know are prone to such abuse.” 

The Court noted the fact that employment decisions must be approved by the Governing Board of a school district does not necessarily absolve a district from liability for an administrator’s or supervisor’s negligence.  School employees have a duty to protect students from harm and this duty “includes an obligation to exercise ordinary care in hiring, training, supervising, and discharging school personnel.”  If an administrator hires a guidance counselor who is a child molester and then fails to provide adequate supervision or fails to terminate the counselor when faced with ongoing sexual misconduct, a school district may be liable for the negligence of the administrator.  However, an employee who does not actually make hiring and retention decisions, or whose recommendations are not likely to be influential to the decision maker, would potentially not face individual liability.

What This Means To You

Pursuant to the Court’s decision, school administrators have an ongoing duty to appropriately hire, train and supervise their employees.  Administrators who are aware of any claims of employee misconduct must promptly address charges of misconduct through a thorough and well-documented investigation and take appropriate disciplinary measures.  Otherwise, there is a possibility of liability for both the employing district, and individual administrators.

Questions

If you have any questions concerning the content of this Legal Alert, please contact the following from our office, or the attorney with whom you normally consult.

Christian M. Keiner or Meghan Covert Russell | 916.321.4500

 

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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