Vidovic v. Mentor City Sch. Dist., 10-01833 (E.D. Ohio Jan. 31, 2013)
Abstract: An Ohio federal district court has granted a school district’s motion for summary judgment in a suit brought by the parents of a high school student who committed suicide, claiming that the student was repeatedly subjected to peer bullying and harassment in violation of her Fourteenth Amendment substantive and procedural due process rights, Fourteenth Amendment equal protection rights, Title VI and Title IX rights, and under Section 1983 related to a municipal liability claim based on the failure to train.
In regards to the substantive due process claim, the court concluded “the school had no constitutional duty to protect or rescue [Sladjana] from harm imposed by other students, or by her own hand.” The court rejected the procedural due process claim stating: “The Constitution does not require the state to implement procedures to protect citizens from themselves, nor does it require the state to provide procedural procedures to protect against a deprivation of rights by a third-party, non-state actor.”
The district court also rejected the equal protection claim, finding that there was “absolutely no evidence in the record that [the student] or any other person connected with the case informed the school, or its employees that she was being discriminated against based on her nationality.” It dismissed the Title VI claim on the same grounds as the equal protection claim, concluding the parents had “provided no evidence of either an affirmative act of nationality-based discrimination by the school, or deliberate indifference to known severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive student-on-student, nationality-based discrimination.”
The court found that the Title IX claim failed because the parents’ allegations of severe and pervasive peer harassment were based on nationality rather than gender. Finally, it ruled that the Section 1983 claim failed because “[t]here is no constitutional right to protection from the acts of third parties absent certain exceptions which do not exist in this case.” The court stated that “under the relevant law, [the parents' Amended Complaint] does not state a cause of action against the Board for a failure to train, or other [Section] 1983 Monell claims based on Plaintiffs’ substantive or procedural due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, or under the Equal Protection Clause.”
Facts/Issues: Sladjana Vidovic, who emigrated from Bosnia with her family, attended school in the Mentor City School District (MCSD). During her time attending junior high and high school in MCSD, Vidovic was subjected to bullying and harassment by fellow students repeatedly. Although most of the bullying/harassment was verbal and involved her Croatian nationality, on a couple of occasions the name-calling was of a sexual nature. There were also a few incidents of a physical nature.
High school officials dealt with all incidents that were reported or that they learned of promptly. However, over time, Sladjana became increasingly depressed and spoke of suicide on more than one occasion. She also was hospitalized for depression and placed on medication. While in high school, Sladjana met with a school guidance counselor on a regular basis to discuss the bullying/harassment incidents and her mental health. About a week before her suicide, Sladjana was withdrawn from school and began being home schooled. Her suicide note listed a number of issues she was experiencing, from the bullying/harassment at school to difficulties with family members.
The parents filed suit against MCSD, charging that its failure to address the bullying/harassment led to Sladjana’s withdrawal from school and subsequent suicide. The suit claimed violations of her Fourteenth Amendment substantive and procedural due process rights and equal protection rights. The suit also alleged that under Section 1983, MCSD’s policies and practices led to these constitutional violations, and the failure to train school district employees to prevent the bullying/harassment.
In addition, the parents charged that MCSD’s actions constituted a violation of Title VI (nationality) and Title IX (gender). Lastly, they alleged a number of state law claims. Both parties filed motions for summary judgment.
Ruling/Rationale: The district court granted MCSD’s motion for summary judgment, dismissing the federal claims with prejudice. However, it also dismissed the state law claims, which the court did not address, without prejudice allowing the parents to refile their suit raising those claims in state court.
The court began its analysis of the substantive due process claim pointing out that a governmental entity is not required under the Due Process Clause “to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens against invasions by private actors” unless: “(1) the state has custody of the person in need or some other special relationship that heightens their responsibility to care for a particular citizen; or (2) when a state actor acts affirmatively to create or greatly increases the risk of harm to its citizens.”
The district court found no facts to support the first exception, noting that the bullying/harassment closest in time to Sladjana’s suicide happened during summer break when school was not in session. It also pointed out that Sladjana was not in school, or even enrolled, when she committed suicide. Concluding that “the law cannot require a school to police its students and former students outside of the school’s parameters,” the court found the first exception did not apply.
The court stated that the state-created danger exception would apply only if: “(1) an affirmative act by the state … either created or increased the risk that the plaintiff would be exposed to an act of violence by a third party; (2) a special danger to the plaintiff [existed] wherein the state’s actions placed the plaintiff specifically at risk, as distinguished from a risk that affects the public at large; and (3) the state knew or should have known that its actions specifically endangered the plaintiff.”
The court found that the parents had failed to allege any such affirmative acts by MCSD. It stressed that the parents had alleged a failure to act, not an affirmative action, as the basis for their claims. The court pointed out: “Both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Sixth Circuit have repeatedly held that a failure to act, even with knowledge that a risk of harm may exist without state intervention, is not enough to confer liability under the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Highlighting that “these cases have been applied to preclude recovery in cases presenting allegations similar to the allegations of deliberate indifference set forth in this action, even when the alleged indifference resulted in death and other bodily harm to innocent and especially vulnerable students,” the district court concluded that “the school had no constitutional duty to protect or rescue Ms. Vidovic from harm imposed by other students, or by her own hand.”
In regard to the procedural due process claim, the court found that the parents did have protected rights that were affected by the events alleged in the suit. However, the court pointed out that the “Constitution does not require the state to implement procedures to protect citizens from themselves, nor does it require the state to provide procedural procedures to protect against a deprivation of rights by a third-party, non-state actor.”
In addition, the district court found: “Even if there is a constitutional right to a public education, or, more precisely in this case, the right to a choice of how that education is delivered, there is no indication that the school deprived [Sladjana] of her education, or that it required her to switch to an on-line course.” As a result, the court concluded that the parents had failed to point to any procedural process that would have been sufficient to protect Sladjana’s rights under the circumstances.
As to the equal protection claim, the court stated that the parents were arguing that the loss of that fundamental right based on Sladjana’s membership in a suspect class, i.e., Croatian nationality. In order to succeed on that claim, the court stated that the parents must show that Sladjana “suffered severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive harassment on the basis of her nationality.” The court also pointed out that the parents could succeed if they proved deliberate indifference, which requires showing that “the school acted with a discriminatory intent when it failed to respond to student-on-student harassment.”
However, the district court determined that there was no basis upon which to find that [MCSD] either intentionally discriminated against [Sladjana] (or her family) based on their nationality, or that they were deliberately indifferent to discrimination waged against [Sladjana] based on her nationality.” In addition, the court concluded that there no basis for finding that the parents were “treated any differently than parents of any other nationality, except that the school made efforts to ensure that someone was available to translate from English to Croatian when school officials met with the Vidovics.”
As to the Title VI nationality claim, the court pointed out that the “standard for proving a discrimination claim under Title VI is at least as stringent as that for proving an Equal Protection claim.” The court, therefore, concluded that based on its reasoning to dismiss the equal protection claim, the parents had failed to provide any “evidence of either an affirmative act of nationality-based discrimination by the school, or deliberate indifference to known severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive student-on-student, nationality-based discrimination.”
Turning to the Title IX claim, the court pointed out that the parents had attempted to prove their claims of severe and pervasive gender-based discrimination by citing “mainly to incidents that have no obvious connection to gender.” It stated: “There is no evidence whatsoever in the record that these alleged acts or any other physical acts were motivated by [Sladjana's] gender, nor is there any evidence that these acts were reported as being in any way gender related.”
Lastly, the court rejected the parents’ Section 1983 claim. First, the court emphasized that the parents failed to provide any “evidence that could establish the violation of any constitutional right owed to them or to” Sladjana. The court also pointed out that the parents failed to identify “any procedural due process rights that were violated, and have not established any Equal Protection claims under the U.S. Constitution.” It found that the parents’ “allegations that other [MCSD] students have committed suicide at least partially due to bullying, but they have not shown that these cases involved any constitutional violations by the school, unavailing.” The court concluded “there is no indication that the school’s alleged inaction was the ‘moving force’ behind or constituted a direct causal link to the constitutional deprivations alleged in this case.”
Vidovic v. Mentor City Sch. Dist., 10-01833 (E.D. Ohio Jan. 31, 2013)
[Editor's Note: In a January 31, 2013 Plain Dealer article on the district court's decision, Peter Krouse reported that Ken Myers, the attorney for the parents, said his inclination is to appeal the district court's decision and re-file in the Lake County Common Pleas Court because some of the claims involve state law on which the federal district court declined to comment. The lawsuit brought by the Vidovics, and a similar suit brought by Eric Mohat's parents, claimed bullying played a role in the students' deaths. The district court dismissed the Mohats' suit in 2011. Myers, who also represented the Mohats, said at the time that the Vidovics' suit was different because it provided much more evidence that school officials were aware of the bullying that was going on.
In March 2011, Legal Clips summarized an article in the Columbus Dispatch, which reported that the Ohio Supreme Court had dismissed a state court lawsuit filed by the Mohats. In a 7-0 opinion, the justices said the case was “improvidently accepted for review,” meaning they should not have agreed to hear it in the first place. The case then reverted to the federal district court that had asked the Supreme Court to rule regarding the applicability of state law on the statute of limitations.
In June 2011, Legal Clips summarized the district court's decision to grant the school district's motion to dismiss the Mohats' suit. The court concluded that the estate’s claims were time-barred because a personal representative of the estate was not appointed until the statute of limitations on the claims had run.]