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Court Permits Student Claim Against Teacher for Outrageous Comments to Proceed to Trial

July 23, 2014

A teacher's outrageous comments made toward students may expose a school district to intentional tort liability. In a recent case, Melson v Botas , the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that a student at Lawton Community Schools stated a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) against his home economics teacher. The teacher became enraged when the student stopped working on an art project because his fingers hurt. The teacher allegedly yelled, "Why don't you just kill yourself?" She then allegedly ripped the art project from the student's hands and threatened to lock him in a room.

To state a claim of IIED, a plaintiff must allege: (1) extreme and outrageous conduct, (2) intent and recklessness, (3) causation, and (4) severe emotional distress. At issue in the case was whether the teacher's remarks and conduct, as alleged in the complaint, were sufficiently extreme and outrageous to state a claim of IIED. The court emphasized that whether the offending behavior rises to the level of extreme and outrageous conduct must be assessed within the context in which the remarks and conduct occurred, which includes consideration of the position of the actor and her relationship to the distressed party.

When analyzing the IIED claim, the court noted that in many contexts, the teacher's remarks and conduct would correctly be characterized as involving mere insults, threats, or other trivialities. Given her position as the student's teacher and the classroom setting in which the conduct was alleged to have occurred, however, the court held that "reasonable minds could conclude that her remarks were extreme and outrageous." That is, "accepting as true plaintiff's well-plead allegations and construing them in a light most favorable to plaintiffs, their complaint indicates that an adult educator, in a position of authority, made demeaning, humiliating, and potentially threatening remarks to a minor child in her care, in the presence of other children, and that she did so in a classroom setting where it could reasonably be concluded that children should not be expected to endure such treatment from a teacher." In these circumstances, an average member of the community could reasonably experience resentment against the teacher and exclaim "Outrageous!" As a result, the Court of Appeals held that the issue could not be decided by the trial court on summary disposition but must be decided by a jury.

The teacher also made an alternative argument that the student failed to exhaust administrative remedies before filing a lawsuit. Because the student had a learning disability and his allegations related to the teacher's failure to properly discipline him, the teacher argued that the issue fell within the scope of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which provides for an administrative proceeding. The court disagreed with this exhaustion argument. Although the IDEA requires a plaintiff to exhaust administrative remedies before filing a federal lawsuit implicating the IDEA, nothing in the IDEA requires exhaustion of administrative remedies before a plaintiff may pursue a state tort law claim. Because the student's action was based on state tort law, the teacher was not entitled to summary disposition based on this IDEA exhaustion argument.

Melson v Botas makes clear that teachers are among those individuals whose position of authority may cause their offending behavior to rise to the level of extreme and outrageous conduct that can subject them to claims of IIED. School officials are encouraged to review their polices and train their staff to minimize the potential for such liability. If you have questions about this case or its impact on your District, please contact Eric C. Griggs at (616) 608-1147, , or another Clark Hill Education Practice Group attorney.

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