A Teacher’s Discriminatory Actions Could Create District Liability

S.C. and B.C., individually and on behalf of their minor daughter, C.C. (collectively, “Plaintiffs”), filed a disability discrimination lawsuit against Round Rock ISD, a journalism teacher, and a high school assistant principal. Plaintiffs claimed that, in 2016, C.C. enrolled as a student at Cedar Valley Middle School in RRISD. The same year, C.C. was diagnosed with and treated for Anorexia Nervosa

On January 10, 2017, RRISD determined that C.C. was entitled to receive certain accommodations for her eating disorder, pursuant to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. RRISD developed a Section 504 accommodation plan which provided her accommodations while she was at school, such as having “supervised meals.”

In Fall 2018, C.C. transitioned to McNeil High School. Plaintiffs allege that the 504 plan did not follow her in any meaningful fashion.  Plaintiffs contend that the assistant principal failed to implement or delegate implementation of the 504 plan. They also claimed C.C.’s journalism teacher and a member of C.C.’s Section 504 Committee, recruited C.C. into the journalism department because she had a plan to exploit C.C.’s health condition by making C.C. the subject of a feature article in the high school yearbook concerning mental illness. Her parents were not contacted by any school official or faculty member to gain consent.

Submitting to the peer and faculty pressure, C.C. participated in the interviews and allowed photographs to be taken in late October or early November 2018.  According to the suit, the photographs and gossipy rumors of C.C.’s condition began appearing on social media.

Plaintiffs allege that because of the yearbook story, photographs, interviews, and ensuing gossip, C.C. stopped eating and her condition deteriorated to the point that she was placed in an out-of-state in-treatment facility.  C.C. returned to RRISD when the parents could no longer afford to pay for the costly treatment.  The suit alleges that she returned to a hostile environment at RRISD, where the rumors and gossiping continued.

The parents brought suit under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), and the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection and due process clauses.  RRISD sought dismissal of the suit against it, arguing that the allegations amounted to mere negligence, instead of intentional discrimination, which is required to sustain claims for damages under Section 504 or the ADA.

The Fifth Circuit has held that facts creating an inference of professional bad faith or gross misjudgment are necessary to substantiate a cause of action for intentional discrimination under Section 504 or ADA against a school district.  The Court determined that Plaintiffs’ allegations were sufficient to create an inference of professional bad faith or gross misjudgment on the part of the journalism teacher.

The trial court further concluded that RRISD could be held liable for the teacher’s actions, regardless of whether the district was on notice of the student’s disability or the teacher’s actions.  To hold RRISD liable for the teacher’s intentional discrimination under Section 504 and the ADA, only the teacher had to be on notice of C.C.’s disability and intentionally discriminate. The Court, therefore, concluded that the Plaintiffs alleged a plausible intentional discrimination claim under the ADA and RA against RR ISD.  The case is S.C. v. Round Rock Indep. Sch. Dist., No. A-19-CV-1177-SH, 2020 WL 5351077, at *1-7 (W.D. Tex. Sept. 4, 2020).

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