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March 8, 2012

California Supreme Court Holds School Districts May Be Liable for Negligence in Hiring, Supervision, or Discipline of Employees Posing a Danger to Students


Today the California Supreme Court held that administrative and supervisory employees of a public school district owe a duty of reasonable care to protect students from foreseeable dangers—including dangers presented by other school employees—and that a supervisor or administrator’s failure to fulfill this duty may give rise to vicarious tort liability for the district. [C.A. v. William S. Hart Union High School District (March 8, 2012).]

The plaintiff in the case, minor student C.A., sued the William S. Hart Union High School District, head guidance counselor Roselyn Hubbell, and “Does 1–100.” He alleged that he was subjected to harassment and sexual abuse by Hubbell, to whom he was assigned for school counseling. During a nine-month period, Hubbell spent many hours with C.A. both on and off campus, and she drove him home from school every day. “Exploiting her position of authority and trust, Hubbell engaged in sexual activities with [C.A.] and required that he engage” in certain other sexual activities with her. C.A. alleged that unnamed district employees “knew that Hubbell had engaged in unlawful sexually-related conduct with minors in the past, and/or was continuing to engage in such conduct.” He further alleged that personnel and/or school records documented incidents of inappropriate sexual conduct involving Hubbell, but school administrators and supervisors took no action to prevent Hubbell from harming him.

Both the trial court and the Court of Appeal dismissed C.A.’s claims following a demurrer by the school district. As public entities, school districts may only be held liable under the strict terms of statutes creating such liability. Both courts found there was no statutory authority giving rise to liability for negligent hiring, supervision, or retention of a school district employee. Further, under the California Government Tort Claims Act, a public school district is not vicariously liable for the sexual misconduct of an employee because such conduct is not within the “scope of employment.” The California Supreme Court granted review to determine whether a school administrator’s failure to exercise ordinary care in hiring, supervising, or discharging an employee in his or her charge to protect students from harm may create vicarious liability for a school district under Government Code section 815.2.

The Court determined that the district and its administrative and supervisory employees owe a duty of reasonable care to protect students from foreseeable dangers, in part because of the special relationship created by mandatory school attendance laws and the comprehensive control over students exercised by school personnel. This duty exists even if administrators and supervisors do not directly supervise and control the students.

While acknowledging that hiring certificated employees is by law the responsibility of a school district’s governing board, and that termination requires action by the governing board and a commission on professional competence, the Court nevertheless found school districts may be found vicariously liable for administrators’ negligent acts leading to the hiring, supervision, or retention of dangerous school employees. The Court made clear that “[s]chool 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 rationale provided was that administrators and supervisors have the power to propose who to hire, and to file charges instituting proceedings for suspension or termination of employees. Thus, not exercising ordinary care in doing so to protect students who may foreseeably be harmed by the employee may result in liability for the district.

The Court qualified its opinion, however, in light of valid concerns that may arise. It repeatedly pointed out that this case is still at the pleading stage, meaning that the plaintiff would have to present evidence identifying the administrators and supervisors responsible (they were unidentified in the complaint), their knowledge of misconduct by the counselor, and their wrongful or negligent acts.

The Court warned that “unsubstantiated rumors of sexual misconduct” will not suffice to show that the administrators and supervisors knew or should have known of possible wrongdoing, and a district’s liability must be based on “evidence of negligent hiring, supervision, or retention, not on assumptions or speculation.” (Emphasis in original.) The Court then recognized that where a school employee has engaged in sexual misconduct with a student, “the greater share of fault will ordinarily lie with the individual who intentionally abused or harassed the student than with any other party, and that fact should be reflected in any allocation of comparative fault.” This could affect the apportionment of monetary damages between the employee who engaged in the misconduct and the district.

The Court did not hold that the administrators and supervisors were personally liable for these possible negligent acts. It recognized that because the conduct would occur within the course and scope of their employment, the district would be obligated to defend and pay any damages for their actions.

While it is too early to determine all the implications of this case, it would be prudent for school districts to ensure their administrative and supervisory employees are adequately trained with regard to their responsibilities in hiring, supervising, and disciplining employees in their charge. Although the ultimate personnel action falls upon the governing board or other decision-making body, supervisors and administrators must understand their role in reporting and responding to misconduct involving students, and ensure they are fulfilling these obligations with reasonable care in order to keep students safe.

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