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Tort/Negligence – Schools & School Boards – Administrators – Public Official Immunity – Abusive Teacher

Tort/Negligence – Schools & School Boards – Administrators – Public Official Immunity – Abusive Teacher

Where the teacher of a special education class abused plaintiff’s autistic son by, for two examples, putting him and keeping him in a trash can and spilling hot grease on his head, public official immunity protects the defendant-school administrators from liability for failing to report the child abuse.

We reverse the district court’s denial of defendants’ motion to dismiss.

School officials such as superintendents and principals are public officials, in part because they perform discretionary acts requiring personal deliberations, decision, and judgment. Plaintiff does not dispute that the defendant-school administrators are public officials. However, she asserts that the school officials’ actions here were ministerial since they had a statutory duty to report child abuse, so their negligent failure to do so is not immune from suit.

It is far from clear that North Carolina law limits public official immunity to discretionary acts. But even if we were to accept plaintiff’s argument on this point, her position would still fail because the school officials’ actions here were discretionary.

When presented with a report of poor teacher behavior, officials are faced with a number of questions: Do they report to authorities? Do they take a more severe route and suspend or fire the teacher, opt for a milder reprimand, or perhaps reassign her to a different post? Or should they even do anything at all? These questions cannot be answered without thoughtful consideration and deliberation.

North Carolina law requires school personnel who have “cause to suspect child abuse” to report it to the Director of Social Services. G.S. § 115C-400. But the existence of guiding regulations does not eliminate the need for judgment.

Most obviously, whether or not an official has “cause to suspect” child abuse is a judgment call. It depends, among other things, on the official’s assessment of an accusation’s credibility and severity.

Even assuming the accusation is credited, whether or not alleged behavior rises to the level of “child abuse” is likewise a case-by-case decision. The official must assess the intent of the actor, the risk of injury to the child, the severity of physical injury, and the appropriateness of disciplinary devices, among other factors. G.S. § 7B101(1). Surely those assessments require a good measure of “personal deliberation, decision and judgment.”

Plaintiff may only pierce public official immunity by showing that the defendant-official’s tortious conduct falls within one of the immunity exceptions, i.e., that the official’s conduct is malicious, corrupt, or outside the scope of official authority.

Plaintiff did not allege malice, or any other piercing exception, in the amended complaint. Therefore, she has not satisfied the basic burden to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.

Plaintiff points to the teacher’s odious behavior and, from there, infers that the school officials acted maliciously by not reporting the behavior or by allowing it to continue. This argument also fails.

Nowhere has plaintiff asserted that the school officials had any actual intent to harm plaintiff’s son, G.A. All appellants are school administrators at least one step removed from the incidents in question. The mere allegation that such disheartening things occurred at their school does not show that the school officials intended them to happen. We are thus left only with administrators’ failure to report or take corrective action in response to the teacher’s behavior, which plaintiff argues amounts to a constructive intent to harm G.A.

Mere reckless indifference is insufficient to show a constructive intent to injure. No direct infliction of force or injury is alleged. At most, plaintiff alleges that the school officials failed to investigate and report the teacher’s behavior, and were thus recklessly indifferent to G.A.’s wellbeing. But, as noted, reckless indifference is insufficient to find constructive intent.

Simply by alleging failure to take corrective action, plaintiff has not adequately pled that the school officials constructively intended to harm G.A. We are therefore left with North Carolina’s presumption that the school officials acted in good faith in their decision-making after learning of a school district employee’s report about abuse in the teacher’s classroom.

Appellants are public officials entitled to immunity under North Carolina law. And plaintiff has not alleged that the officials maliciously intended to cause G.A. harm such that their immunity is pierced. The state law claims against appellants must thus be dismissed, and the district court’s decision to the contrary is reversed.



(Motz, J.) Certain immunity doctrines have faced intense criticism. But North Carolina has not yet chosen to reconsider its doctrine of public official immunity. Unless and until that day comes, we can only apply the immunity as the law requires.

R.A. v. Johnson (Lawyers Weekly No. 001-079-22, 17 pp.) (Harvie Wilkinson, J.) (Diane Gribbon Motz, J., concurring) No. 21-1972. Appealed from USDC at Statesville, N.C. (Kenneth Bell, J.) Sarah Margaret Saint, Gary Parsons, Virginia Wooten and Steven Bader for appellants; Stacey Marlise Gahagan for appellee. 4th Cir.

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