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Federal Appellate Court Grants Petition for Rehearing for Victim of Sexual Abuse, Potentially Expands Civil Liability for School Districts

By November 14, 2018News

In a major ruling, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (with jurisdiction over federal cases arising in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin) vacated its prior ruling and granted a new hearing to a student who alleged that a school district in Wisconsin was legally liable for abuse she suffered at the hands of a school employee.

In Doe v. Madison Metropolitan School District, the student alleged that while an eighth grader, she was sexually abused by the district’s security guard. The lawsuit alleged that school officials had actual notice of an inappropriate relationship while she was in seventh grade that should have prevented the abuse the following year. The lawsuit claims that the principal was aware of, and even witnessed, instances of inappropriate conduct. For example, the suit alleged that while Doe was in seventh grade, the principal observed multiple occasions where the security guard would walk behind the student in the cafeteria and rub her shoulders. Teachers and counselors also allegedly reported to the principal instances where the student sought out the security guard, initiated hugs with him, and sometimes jumped and hung on him. A school counselor allegedly reported to the principal that the guard had boundary issues with female students.

In July, a panel of the Seventh Circuit upheld the district court’s dismissal of the case, finding that no reasonable jury could find, based on those facts, that the principal had actual knowledge of any sexual misconduct by the security guard that created a serious risk to the student.

The student filed a petition for rehearing, arguing that the Seventh Circuit applied the actual notice standard in a way that is virtually impossible to satisfy. Notably, the petition argued that a school official should not need to know of conduct tantamount to the sexual abuse itself before being expected to act in response. The court granted the petition and vacated its previous ruling; the matter is set for oral arguments in February 2019.

The importance of this case is two-fold. First, it highlights the importance of school personnel understanding their responsibilities as mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse and neglect. Second, depending on the court’s ruling on rehearing, it could potentially expand the definition of actual knowledge and hold school districts and staff in Illinois to a higher standard when it comes to reporting requirements and any resulting liability.

We will continue to monitor the status of this case.