Failed Abuse Claim against KY School District Demonstrates How High the “Deliberate Indifference” Standard Is

The Sixth Circuit recently affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of a Kentucky school district sued for allegedly tolerating the abuse of a special needs student. In K.C. v. Marshall County Bd. of Educ., Case No. 18-5186 (6th Cir. 2019) the parents of a special needs student filed suit under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act after they learned that their child may have been subjected to verbal and physical abuse and neglect while at school.

Though the record contained substantial evidence to verify that the abuse occurred, including a surreptitiously obtained recording of a staff member, reports of at least one fellow student, and findings from at least one child-protection agency, the Court affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of the Board of Education. The reason for this, as the Court noted, was that the student’s claims under the ADA and Section 504 were subject to the onerous “deliberate indifference” standard. This standard, which governs a number of federal civil rights and constitutional claims, requires actual notice of alleged wrongdoing and a failure to act. Although the Court was plainly troubled by the facts in the record before it, as indicated by the concurrence of one Justice who wrote separately merely to express his concern, the Court found that there simply was no evidence that the Board had forewarning of the teacher’s behavior. As such, it affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of the District.

The Court was able to sidestep a potentially more challenging issue–vicarious liablity–due to the parents’ failure to raise this issue at the trial court level. On appeal, the parents attempted to argue that the Court should follow the lead of some courts outside the Sixth Circuit to apply a “vicarious liability” standard to ADA Title II claims. Under this theory, an entity could be held responsible for it’s employee’s violation of law even if it does not have actual knowledge of it. In K.C., however, the Court refused to address this issue since the parents had not alleged it in their complaint or raised it when opposing the District’s motion for summary judgment.

In short, K.C. suggests that there may be some developments as to the legal standard underlying disability harassment and abuse claims in the future. For the time being, however, K.C. demonstrates that the currently prevailing standard governing such claims is a difficult one to satisfy.

 

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