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Robert L. McTiernan

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Co-chair, Labor & Employment Group

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Student Cannot Claim Damages for Emotional Distress or Negligence Arising from Hazing

Robert L. McTiernan, Esq., rmctiernan@tuckerlaw.com, (412) 594-5528

Michael Reed V. Mount Carmel Area School District, Et Al., Case No. 4:23-Cv-00890 (M.d. Pa., October 3, 2023) U.S. District Court dismissed claims against School District for emotional distress under Title IX and for negligence under Pennsylvania Law.)

Summary and Background

Plaintiff, Michael Reed, was a seventeen-year-old member of the Mount Carmel High School football team when he suffered a violent assault during a hazing incident at the family home of the captain of the team. As part of a ritual to “initiate” new starting players, the team captain and other players restrained Reed and inflicted eight to ten burns on Reed’s bare buttocks. Similar hazing incidents had occurred in the past and were allegedly known to this School District, which failed to act on the reports.

Discussion

In the ensuing litigation, the School District successfully moved the Court to dismiss Reed’s claims for emotional distress damages under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, as well as all pendent claims for negligence brought under state law, specifically the Pennsylvania Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act.

Applying the United State Supreme Court’s reasoning in Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, P.L.L.C., 142 S.Ct. 1562 (2022), the Court concluded that federal funding statutes such as Title IX, which “operate based on consent: ‘in return for federal funds the [recipients] agree to comply with federally imposed conditions’, ”do not imply consent to claims for emotional distress damages, which were not foreseen as stipulations upon federal funding, and, accordingly, are unavailable. The Court also noted the absence of any textual evidence in the statute that Congress authorized claims for emotional distress.

The Court, in turn, reasoned that Reed’s claims did not fit twithin the “sexual abuse” waiver of sovereign immunity under the Pennsylvania Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, because the crime of “institutional sexual assault” does not cover actions by students, who are excluded from the definition nof “volunteers” and “employees” under the Act.

Practical Advice

This District Court’s decision is consistent with recent cases following the Supreme Court’s decision in Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, P.L.L.C., which substantially narrow the type of liability school districts face in these suits. Nevertheless, the plaintiff’s claim for compensatory damages was permitted to go forward, and, if the School District’s alleged failure to investigate prior reports of physical assault and abuse is found to be meritorious, that claim alone could result in substantial liability. Even with a narrower scope of remedies, this decision calls for renewed vigilance by school districts in monitoring any school activity.

For more information, contact Bob McTiernan at (412) 594-5528 or at rmctiernan@tuckerlaw.com.

June 04, 2024

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