A federal district court jury has awarded the father of an elementary school student, who was released to an unauthorized person, $2.8 million in damages, says The San Diego Union-Times. The jury held that the Escondido Union School District (EUSD) was responsible for allowing the student to be released from school to a non-parent and kidnapped to Mexico. The lawsuit centered on the issue of who is authorized to pick up children from school, and how closely those policies are followed, especially when dealing with splintered families and complicated parent work schedules.
When Enrique’s mother, Claudia Cano, was deported in November 2010, the boy went to live with his father, according to the lawsuit. Cano notified the school that she’d been deported. On the morning of December 6, 2010, Manuel Ramirez dropped off his son at Farr Elementary School (FES). That day, a person identifying herself as Cano called the school and spoke with the office manager, Graciela Mineroa Murguia. She said Enrique had a doctor’s appointment in 15 minutes but was unable to get out of work to take him. She told the manager that she was instead sending her boyfriend to pick him up. The manager said she checked and saw that the boyfriend was not listed on the boy’s “emergency card” as an authorized person for pickup. But Murguia wrote down his name and said the boyfriend could do the pickup as long as he showed identification. A school clerk was staffing the desk when the boyfriend showed up, and she let Enrique go with him upon checking the ID, according to court records. Enrique appeared to recognize the boyfriend, calling him by his nickname, and looked “happy to see him,” according to the school district’s trial brief. When Ramirez returned later that day to pick up Enrique, only his backpack was in the classroom. Enrique, a U.S. citizen, is believed to be living in Mexico with his mother, Claudia Cano.
The lynch pin of the suit was the school’s policy, which states: “If a student needs to be dismissed during the day, the school will only let him or her be signed out by someone who is listed on the emergency card,” and again, “We will not release your child to anyone not listed on the emergency card.” The district argued that the policy does not prohibit a parent’s verbal authorization.
Ramirez’s suit, which was also filed on behalf of Enrique, named EUSD and FES’s principal and office manager as defendants. The suit claimed deprivation of father-son contact, negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress. After a five-day trial and two days of deliberation, the jury awarded the father $2 million and his son $850,000. The principal, Angel Gotay, was also ordered to pay punitive damages of $3,500, and the office manager $2.
EUSD’s attorney, Daniel Shinoff, expressed disappointment with the jury’s verdict, and stated he planned to recommend the decision be appealed for a number of reasons.
According to Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, family custody issues, rather than random gun violence, are “without a doubt” the biggest threat facing elementary schools on a day-to-day basis. “These things are so complex. … Maintaining that chain of custody of the child is critical. Unfortunately, one mistake can be a matter of life or death,” said Trump. “Because of that, school secretaries and principals are typically extremely vigilant about maintaining the letter of the law, and it often comes down to what legal orders they have on file.”
Source: The San Diego Union-Times, 10/3/13, By Kristana Davis
[Editor's Note: In its February 2012 order denying EUSD et al's motion to dismiss Ramirez's suit, the federal district court stated that the federal constitutional right at issue, i.e., the substantive due process right to family integrity or to familial association, "is well established." The court held that the plaintiffs had met their burden on a substantive due process claim of showing that the defendants' conduct "shock[ed] the conscience or offend[ed] the community’s sense of fair play and decency.”
In a case with similar issues, Doe v. Covington Cnty. Sch. Dist., the plaintiff unsuccessfully argued that the school district was liable for violating her substantive due process rights based on the special relationship exception enunciated in DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189 (1989), to the well-settled rule that “a State’s failure to protect an individual against private violence simply does not constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause.” In March 2013, Legal Clips summarized the decision in Covington by a divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
Ramirez’s theory of liability appears to have taken a page from the concurring opinion in Covington, which states: “If the complaint had asserted that the affirmative act of releasing Jane [the student] to Keyes [the unauthorized person] was a causal act of recklessness or deliberate indifference or intentionality that caused her to be subjected to injury, and specifically to the deprivation of her right to bodily integrity, the complaint properly would proceed through discovery to trial.”]