Supreme Court Affirms Summary Judgment for Municipal Defendants in Cases Alleging Sexual Misconduct by Former Teacher

July 30, 2021

 

The Supreme Court of Connecticut has affirmed the granting of summary judgment for retired RRD Attorney Catherine Nietzel and Attorney Jonathan Zellner on behalf of their clients, a municipality, its board of education, and a high school principal.  In three consolidated cases, the plaintiffs, former students, sought to hold the defendants liable in negligence for the sexual misconduct and advances of a former high school teacher.  They claimed that the defendants failed to prevent and/or interrupt the teacher’s inappropriate relationship with them, failed to report her misconduct to the proper authorities, failed to monitor her social media usage to ascertain whether she was violating any school policies concerning communications between teachers and students, and failed to properly train and supervise school employees with respect to the warning signs of inappropriate relationships between teachers and students. 

 

Attorneys Nietzel and Zellner moved for summary judgment in each action, arguing that there was insufficient evidence of reasonable cause to suspect that the teacher had abused any of the plaintiffs, which would have triggered a duty to report to the Commissioner of Children and Families, and that the defendants were entitled to governmental immunity.  Judge James Abrams granted the motions for summary judgment, concluding that, while the duty to report abuse of students is mandatory, there was no evidence that any school staff had the requisite reasonable cause to suspect that the teacher was abusing any of the plaintiffs (or any students, for that matter).  In particular, the court emphasized that no school employee ever witnessed the teacher flirt with students, that she had reacted appropriately when male students flirted with her, that none of the social media posts at issue would have triggered a reasonable suspicion that a student was being abused or at risk of imminent harm, and that the teacher’s attire was not enough—alone or in conjunction with any other event—to cause reasonable suspicion that a student was being abused or at risk of imminent harm.  For similar reasons, Judge Abrams also concluded that the plaintiffs had failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact with respect to the applicability of the identifiable person-imminent harm exception to governmental immunity.

 

The plaintiffs appealed the decisions to the Connecticut Appellate Court, and the appeals were thereafter transferred to the Supreme Court of Connecticut.  In a detailed opinion by Chief Justice Richard Robinson, the Supreme Court affirmed Judge Abrams’s decision.  The Supreme Court agreed that there was no evidence that any school employees had reasonable cause to suspect that the teacher was abusing the plaintiffs or exposing them to an imminent risk of harm.  The conduct that the plaintiffs claimed should have alerted school officials to abuse or possible abuse—including, for example, the plaintiffs visiting the teacher’s classroom, the teacher showing football players attention at a high school football game, and her attire during some football conditioning practices—did not meet the threshold necessary to trigger a mandatory duty to report abuse or suspected abuse.  The Court also observed that one of the plaintiffs impermissibly aggregated individual acts or events that allegedly should have alerted the defendants to abuse or possible abuse in an attempt to infer reasonable cause, which ignored the fact that no school employee was aware of each such act or event in combination.  In addition, the Court found that the identifiable person-imminent harm exception to governmental immunity did not apply because nothing in the evidence established that it was apparent to any school employee that the teacher would engage in sexual behavior with or toward any student, let alone any of the plaintiffs.