Depending on the facts of a particular case, teachers who commit sexual assault on students or harassment are likely liable for damages in civil suits and not protected by immunity. Municipal employee immunity does not cover actions that are wanton, willful, or malicious or actions that subject an identifiable victim to imminent harm. Sexual assault or harassment would likely be considered one of these types of actions.
Teachers who commit such acts may face various criminal charges, including some form of sexual assault (CGS §§ 53a-70 to -73a). For example, sexual assault in the fourth degree includes a school employee subjecting another person to sexual contact who is a student enrolled in a school (1) where the defendant works or (2) under the jurisdiction of the local or regional board of education which employs the defendant (CGS § 53a-73a(6)). This crime is a class A misdemeanor or, if the victim is under 16 years of age, a class D felony.
Depending on the particular circumstances, a teacher engaging in sexual misconduct may face more serious charges. For example, sexual assault in the first degree includes (among other acts) engaging in sexual intercourse with someone who is under 13 years old when the defendant is more than two years older than the victim (CGS § 53a-70). This crime may be a class A or B felony and includes a mandatory minimum prison term.
Generally, school boards are entitled to the same immunity as other municipal agencies. The question of whether a school district or municipality could be liable for a teacher’s misconduct is complex and depends on the facts of a particular case and the particular legal claims asserted by the plaintiff. As noted above, municipalities are not liable for acts or omissions by employees that constitute criminal conduct (CGS § 52-557n(a)(2)). However, a review of the case law suggests that municipalities may face liability under various legal theories if a teacher engages in sexual misconduct (see next section).
There are also specific provisions in the statutes providing for indemnification in various circumstances when teachers are sued (CGS § 10-235). Some plaintiffs have argued that the indemnification provisions in CGS § 10-235 permit a direct claim against the school district, since the district will likely indemnify the teacher who committed the act giving rise to the lawsuit. However, the majority view among Connecticut Superior Courts is that CGS § 10-235 does not establish a direct cause of action against a school district (Thomas B. Mooney, A Practical Guide to Connecticut School Law, 5th Edition, p. 151-52). For example, in Logan v. Adams (discussed below), the court granted the municipality’s motion to strike the plaintiff’s claim that CGS § 10-235 established a direct action against the municipality.
Cases Involving Teacher Sexual Assault or Misconduct
State law. Various court cases have considered claims against school districts stemming from a teacher’s sexual misconduct. They have allowed some claims to go forward while dismissing others. While it is difficult to generalize about the cases because each one involves specific facts and legal theories, the cases demonstrate that school districts may face liability when their teachers engage in such misconduct.
Following are summarizes of a sample of Connecticut cases dealing with municipal liability and teacher sexual misconduct.
In one Superior Court case, the plaintiff brought various claims against a municipality and teacher stemming from the teacher’s alleged sexual abuse of the plaintiff. The court granted the municipality’s motion to strike several claims, including claims based on the teacher indemnification statute. The court held that the claim seeking to hold the board of education liable for the teacher’s acts must be stricken because the teacher’s acts constituted criminal conduct, thus shielding the city from liability under CGS § 52-557n(a)(2) (Logan v. Adams, 2005 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2242) (Aug. 24, 2005) (unreported)).
In another Superior Court case, the plaintiff brought various claims against his former teacher and the district board of education stemming from the teacher’s alleged mental and physical abuse of the plaintiff while he was a student. The teacher had resigned from a previous school after allegations arose that he had engaged in improper sexual language and conduct with a male seventh grade student. The defendant school district hired the teacher two months later, without inquiring into his experience at the previous school.
The court denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment as to the plaintiff’s negligent hiring claim, finding that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the defendant school district’s checking of the teacher’s prior employment was a discretionary act (entitled to immunity) or ministerial (not entitled to immunity). However, the court granted the district’s motion for summary judgment on the claim that the town was vicariously liable for the teacher’s sexual abuse of the plaintiff. The court held that as the acts in question were clearly criminal, the municipality was not liable for its employee’s criminal conduct, citing CGS § 52-557n(a)(2) (Haberern v. Castonguay, 2005 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1412) (May 27, 2005) (unreported)).
In another Superior Court case, the plaintiff alleged that starting in eighth grade her math teacher (who was also her basketball coach) kissed and touched her inappropriately. The activity escalated throughout her high school years. The plaintiff did not disclose the relationship to the police, her parents, or school authorities, but her mother complained to the superintendent about an incident when the teacher kissed the plaintiff. The school did not investigate the allegation.
The court granted the school district’s motion for summary judgment on the claim that it was vicariously liable for the teacher’s conduct, finding that the teacher was acting outside the scope of his employment. However, the court did not grant the motion for summary judgment as to the plaintiff’s claim that the district was negligent in failing to supervise and investigate the complaint, finding that the mother’s report about the teacher kissing her daughter raised an issue of material fact as to whether the identifiable victim exception to municipal immunity should apply (Doe v. Burns, 2005 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2163 (July 19, 2005) (unreported)).
Federal law. In limited circumstances, school districts may face liability under federal law for teacher sexual misconduct. In Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, 525 U.S. 274 (1998), a teacher had a sexual relationship with a female student. The student did not report the relationship to other school officials, but the teacher and student were discovered together. The teacher was arrested and fired. The plaintiffs sued the school district under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits “discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” (20 USC § 1681(a)).
The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled that plaintiffs cannot recover damages for teacher-student sexual harassment under Title IX unless a school district official who, at a minimum, had authority to address the alleged discrimination and take corrective measures had actual notice of, and was deliberately indifferent to, the teacher’s misconduct. The Supreme Court also ruled that the plaintiffs in this case could not show that a school official had actual notice of the misconduct, and thus could not prevail.
This case was not handled by our firm. However, if you have any questions regarding this case, or any employment or labor matter, please contact Joseph Maya at 203-221-3100 or by email at JMaya@MayaLaw.com.
If you have any matters or questions involving school bullying, sexual harassment at school or safe student environment issues, please call the experienced education law attorneys at Maya Murphy, P.C. at (203) 221-3100 or email JMaya@mayalaw.com to set up a free consultation.