Schools’ Liability for Teachers’ Sexual Misconduct

What responsibility does an employer have for an employee’s acts?

Church Law and Tax 1994-11-01 Recent Developments

Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers

Key point: A church will not necessarily be responsible for every incident of sexual molestation that occurs on church premises, even behind locked doors. The church must be shown to have been negligent.

A New York state court ruled that a public school district was not legally responsible for a teacher’s acts of sexual misconduct. The superintendent of a public school system received a telephone call from a person identifying herself as a former student. She alleged that a male teacher (whom she identified) had engaged in inappropriate sexual contact with two female high school students. The superintendent immediately met with the teacher who denied the accusations. A short time later one of the alleged victims informed her father who called the police. This led to the teacher’s arrest and conviction for the crime of endangering the welfare of a child. He was sentenced to prison. The father sued the school district arguing that it was responsible for his daughter’s injuries on the basis of the doctrine of “respondeat superior” (an employer is responsible for acts of its employees committed within the scope of their employment) and negligence. A trial court dismissed the case and the father appealed. A state appeals court upheld the dismissal of the case against the school district. With regard to liability based on respondeat superior, the court observed:

A school district, like any other employer, may be held vicariously liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior for a tort committed by an employee in the course of the performance of the employee’s duties …. Here it is undisputed that on several occasions … the teacher molested [the victim] who was then a junior in the district’s high school. Although these acts occurred on school property during school hours, they were clearly outside the scope of the teacher’s employment as they were wholly personal in nature and certainly not done in the furtherance of the district’s business. Therefore we conclude that, as a matter of law, the doctrine of respondeat superior is inapplicable to this case.

The court also rejected the father’s claim that his daughter’s injuries were caused by the school district’s negligence. Specifically, the father alleged that the district was guilty of negligent supervision. The court rejected this theory of liability as well, noting that:

It is well established that a school district has the duty to exercise the same degree of care and supervision over the pupils under its control as a reasonably prudent parent would exercise under the same circumstances. The standard for determining whether this duty was breached is whether a parent of ordinary prudence placed in the identical situation and armed with the same information would invariably have provided greater supervision.

[The father] maintains that the district breached this duty by permitting the teacher to meet with the student behind locked doors. We disagree. The harm posed by the teacher’s proclivities to engage in inappropriate sexual conduct with students was not known or foreseeable at the time these incidents happened. Without such knowledge, there would have been no reason for a parent of ordinary prudence to prevent his or her child from meeting privately with the teacher during school hours, given the degree of trust reposed in teachers and the fact that such meetings are an integral part of the educational process.

This case will be a useful precedent for churches that are accused of responsibility for the sexual molestation of minors on church premises on the basis of negligent supervision or respondeat superior. Mary KK v. Jack LL, 611 N.Y.S.2d 347 (A.D. 3 Dept. 1994). [PCL12A1, PCL12A3]

See Also: Vicarious Liability | Negligent Supervision

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