In a recent decision, the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed lower rulings related to federal preemption of state law and Maryland’s educational malpractice doctrine. The ruling could have significant implications for students bringing negligence claims and educators defending against them.
Case Facts and Procedural History
Over the course of the 2016-2017 school year, Dorchester County sixth grader—referred to as “S.”—endured several instances of physical and verbal assault at the hands of classmates, resulting in varying injuries. When S. shared with her parents the details of the assaults she was subjected to, they approached the school’s Assistant Principal to discuss possibilities for intervention and preventing any further bullying or attacks on their daughter. Despite the school’s efforts, ranging from suspending other students, arranging for mediation sessions, and changing seating assignments, the altercations and assaults on S. continued. Finding the school’s actions to protect their daughter to be inadequate, S.’s parents filed suit against the teachers and administrators involved, along with the county’s board of education. The family claimed that while S. was in the defendants’ custody and control, the defendants breached their duty to exercise reasonable care in supervising students and preventing them from harming their daughter.
The Dorchester County Circuit Court ruled in favor of the educators and board, finding that the federal Paul D. Coverdell Teacher Protection Act of 2001 (“Coverdell Act”), which protects school employees from liability resulting from disciplinary decisions, preempted a Maryland statute requiring indemnification by boards of education for teacher negligence. The court further found that the educational malpractice doctrine (as established in Hunter v. Board of Education of Montgomery County, 292 Md. 481 (1982)) extended to bar not only claims challenging academic decisions or the quality of education provided to students, but also to claims challenging proper student supervision and discipline. On appeal, the Court of Special Appeals upheld the lower court’s ruling. S.’s parents petitioned for writ of certiorari, which was granted by Maryland’s highest court.
The High Court’s Holdings
In reversing the lower court holdings, the Court found that the Coverdell Act does not preempt the Maryland state statute governing assertion of tort claims against county school boards and its employees. The opinion emphasized that the lower court had erred in its preemption analysis by equating the phrases “liability from harm” and “immunity from suit,” which the Court noted to be distinct legal concepts. Further, in declining to extend the Hunter ruling, the Court held that the educational malpractice doctrine does not bar claims of negligent supervision. Per the Court, the policy reasons for prohibiting claims of educational malpractice—such as (1) there not being a satisfactory standard of care against which an individual educator’s conduct can be measured, (2) the inherent uncertainty in determining the cause and nature of any damages, and (3) the burden that would be imposed on already strained public school systems—were not present under the facts of the case. Whereas the educational malpractice is aimed at preventing the Court from becoming the arbiter over a school’s particular curriculum or pedagogical methods, the Court held that it was quite capable of assessing whether a school employee breached their duty of care in tort cases not involving an evaluation of a particular pedagogical methodology or the like. The Court further found that material disputes of fact precluded the possibility of summary judgment, and remanded the case to the Circuit Court for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.
Implications and Takeaways
Whereas prior rulings had significantly reduced a claimant’s chances of success on a negligent discipline claim against administrators and school boards who had put forth reasonable responses to the harm, the Court’s recent ruling may represent a significant shift in the legal landscape for this type of claim, at least as it relates to individual defendants attempting to assert immunity from suit. Moving forward, with respect to the Coverdell Act holding, educators should be aware that negligence claims against individual school employees based on allegations of improper supervision may not be protected to the degree they once were under the Coverdell Act. The Court did highlight, however, that Maryland still does not recognize a claim of educational malpractice for claims that related to challenging academic decisions and the quality of education. The full case citation for the case discussed herein is: Gambrill v. Bd. of Educ. of Dorchester Cnty., No. 34, SEPT. TERM, 2021, 2022 WL 3698428 (Md. Aug. 26, 2022).
Miles previously reported on the Gambrill case following the Maryland Court of Special Appeals’ ruling in September 2021. More information about that ruling can be found here.
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