Friday, June 07, 2013

sec. 1983 - special relationship - school liability for student abuse/bullying

Morrow v. Belaski – 3d Cir. – June 5, 2013

 As is so often the case, the issues in this appeal arise from unsettling facts presented by sympathetic plaintiffs.1 We are asked to decide whether public schools have a constitutional duty to protect students from abuse inflicted by fellow students under the circumstances alleged here.

Appellants, Brittany and Emily Morrow, and their parents, Bradley and Diedre Morrow, brought this action against Blackhawk School District and Blackhawk High Schools Assistant Principal, Barry Balaski.    The Morrows claim that Brittany and her sister Emily were subjected to bullying in the form of a series of threats, assaults, and acts of racial intimidation at the hands of a fellow student and her accomplice. Unable to obtain help from school officials, the Morrows were ultimately compelled to remove their children from their school. Thereafter, the Morrows brought suit alleging that school officials denied them substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment by not protecting Brittany and Emily. The Third Amended Complaint (the “Complaint”) asserted a cause of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and a supplemental state law claim for “negligence and/or gross or willful misconduct.”

The District Court dismissed the Complaint based on our decision in D.R. v. Middle Bucks Area Vocational Technical School, 972 F.2d 1364 (3d Cir. 1992) (en banc). There, we concluded that the school did not have a “special relationship” with students that would give rise to a constitutional duty to protect them from harm from other students given the alleged facts. See id. at 1372 (finding that “no special relationship based upon a restraint of liberty exists here”). The District Court also held that the injury the Morrows complained of was not the result of any affirmative action by the Defendants. Accordingly, the court held that the Defendants are not liable under the “state-created danger” doctrine. The District Court therefore dismissed the Morrows Complaint, and this appeal followed. The appeal was initially argued before a panel of this Court. Thereafter, we granted en banc review to reexamine the very important questions raised by the allegations in the Complaint.

We now affirm the judgment of the District Court and hold that the allegations do not establish the special relationship or the state-created danger that must exist before a constitutional duty to protect arises under the Fourteenth Amendment.