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Miami-Dade School Board Win

 

On April 8, 2015, the Firm achieved a significant victory on behalf of the Miami-Dade County School Board in a case that stood to reshape a school district’s legal duty to supervise children at school.  In this case, a verbal exchange took place between two students, which prompted the female student to throw a heavy text book at the other student, causing him damage to his eye.  The spontaneous incident arose in class, within short distance of the classroom teacher, while the students were engaged in collaborative work.  The female student had recently transferred from another school.

The student and his mother sued the School Board claiming negligent supervision of the student who threw the textbook.  However, they took the unusual approach of contending that the teacher did nothing wrong, but rather that the fault lay with the School Board because the prior disciplinary record of the female student from her earlier school had not been disclosed to the classroom teacher.  This failure to disclose, plaintiffs contended, prevented the classroom teacher from taking preventive action that might have allowed her to control the female student’s behavior.  The female student’s prior disciplinary record consisted of two incidents:  getting into a shouting match with a fellow student, after which she pulled the student’s shirt, and refusing to stop kissing her boyfriend on a school bus after the driver asked her to stop.  In each instance, the female student received low level discipline.

The School Board’s existing and undisputed practice, while not formalized, was that a student’s disciplinary record would not be shared with teachers to avoid creating a bias or prejudice in the teacher against the student.  Only higher ranking officials in the school’s administration had access to disciplinary records.  Moreover, the School Board contended that to have disclosed this particular female student’s record to her teacher would have violated not only the School Board’s de facto policy, but also federal privacy laws that protect students.

At trial, the trial judge disagreed with the School Board’s decision to limit access to student disciplinary records and concluded that, because no formal policy existed, it was appropriate for the court to set the policy.  After determining that the policy should have required disclosure, the trial judge concluded that this constitute a legal duty of care, that the School Board breached that duty of care, and so instructed the jury, which was left to decide solely the question of causation.  The jury returned a substantial verdict against the School Board.

On appeal, firm partner and chair of the firm’s appellate practice group, Ed Guedes, argued to the Third District primarily that the trial judge had overstepped his authority by setting policy for the School Board and declaring a breach of a heretofore unknown legal duty of care.  He also argued that the trial judge usurped the role of the jury in finding a breach of the duty when there was some question whether disclosure of the prior disciplinary record was necessary under the circumstances.  The Third District agreed, concluding that the setting of educational policy rested with the School Board, as a matter of federal law, and not with the trial judge.  It then went on to conclude that prevention of the incident was simply impossible, given its spontaneous nature.  The court reversed the final judgment and remanded the case to the trial court with instructions that a directed verdict be entered in favor of the School Board.

Categories: LitigationAppellate Law & Practice
Tags: Edward G. GuedesMiami Litigation Attorney
Author(s): Ed Guedes