Minnesota Court of Appeals Limits School District’s Liability in Groundbreaking Decision
In a significant victory for Minnesota public schools, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that a school district was immune from a vicarious liability claim arising out of an allegation that one of its employees sexually abused a student. Doe v. Columbia Heights School District, A15-0713 (Minn. App. Jan. 4, 2016). Specifically, the court held that a school district is immune from vicarious liability claims based on its employee’s intentional wrongdoing unless the employee was acting on behalf of the municipality in the performance of his or her duties. The decision extended an immunity long enjoyed by the State to all municipalities, including school districts.
Vicarious liability is liability that a supervisory party – such as an employer – bears for the conduct of a subordinate or associate – such as an employee – because of the relationship between the two parties. In contrast to direct liability, the employer need not have done anything wrong to be held vicariously liable. Instead, an employer is vicariously liable for an employee’s acts if the acts are committed in the scope of their employment or duties. As such, vicarious liability claims are often harder to defend than negligence claims.
Ratwik, Roszak, & Maloney attorneys Margaret Skelton and Christian Shafer represented the school district in Doe v. Columbia Heights School District, where they successfully argued to the district court and the Court of Appeals that the school district is immune from the student’s vicarious liability claim. The decisions turned on an interpretation of the Minnesota Municipal Tort Claims Act and the Minnesota State Tort Claims Act. Both Acts provide that Minnesota governmental entities only can be held liable for the torts of employees committed in the scope of their employment.
The statutory interpretation involved in this case was an issue of first impression in the State of Minnesota. The court agreed with the School District’s argument that, because the employee’s conduct was indisputably for his own personal reasons, and not on behalf of the District, the District was entitled to immunity on the student’s vicarious liability claim.
The student in the Doe case also asserted negligence and negligent supervision claims against the District; claims that the courts also dismissed. The courts determined that the employee’s conduct was not foreseeable and, therefore, the school district was not negligent. The courts’ conclusion was based on the thorough steps that the district took prior to hiring the employee (e.g., reference checks, criminal background checks), the fact that the employee was familiar with the District’s policies, and the lack of any previous complaints against the employee. Further, the District took immediate steps to protect the student by calling the police, placing the employee on leave, and terminating his employment.
School districts must still carefully screen job applicants, train employees to avoid improper conduct – whether in person or electronically – with students, prevent or limit private one-on-one contact between staff and students, take other precautions to prevent abuse, and be alert for potential indicators that employees are engaging in misconduct with students. Doing so not only helps protect students, but also provides a substantial defense against a negligence claim like the one in the Doe case. School districts can, however, breathe a little easier, knowing that when they have exercised care in hiring and supervising employees, it is likely that they will not be held vicariously liable for an employee’s unforeseeable criminal acts.