Missouri Supreme Court Reaffirms Official Immunity for Public Educators Faced with Emergency Situations
On December 10, 2019, the Missouri Supreme Court rendered its decision in State ex rel. Carlos D. Alsup, Relator, vs. The Honorable James F. Kanatzar, Respondent. At issue in the case was whether a teacher, who was alleged to have injured a student while restraining him, was entitled to official immunity. Under Missouri law, official immunity protects public employees from liability for alleged acts of negligence committed during the course of their official duties for the performance of discretionary acts – acts requiring the official to exercise his or her personal judgment and discretion in performing the act. In rendering its opinion in State ex. rel. Alsup, all seven Missouri Supreme Court Justices reaffirmed and strengthened official immunity protections for public educators and public officials.
EdCounsel attorneys represented the teacher in the case, and following the circuit court’s denial of the teacher’s motion for summary judgment, EdCounsel filed a writ of prohibition with the Missouri Supreme Court. Our attorneys argued the case before the Missouri Supreme Court on March 5, 2019.
In the opinion, the Court detailed the facts where a mother physically struggled with her son to get him inside his school building. Prior to the physical struggle, the mother called the school and said she was having difficulty getting her son to school and for staff be ready when she arrived. After the mother’s struggle, and when the student was in the building, two staff members performed CPI restraints on each of the student’s arms. At some point during the interactions with the mother and the staff, the student sustained a broken arm. The student then sued one of the teachers for negligence.
In representing the teacher, EdCounsel filed two motions to dismiss and ultimately a motion for Summary Judgment, asking that the trial court dismiss the claims against the teacher because he clearly had discretion to make decisions about when to perform a restraint, how to perform a restraint, how long to perform a restraint, and that all of those judgment calls for the teacher afforded him the protections of official immunity. The trial court denied all of those requests and we appealed the matter to the Missouri Supreme Court.
All seven Justices agreed with the teacher, and strongly reaffirmed the doctrine of official immunity for public educators making decisions that require their discretion and judgment. Justice Paul C. Wilson drafted the unanimous opinion and noted:
- Turning to the present case, Alsup’s motion for summary judgment should have been sustained because there is no genuine issue of material fact and he is entitled to official immunity as a matter of law…Similarly, Alsup’s actions in restraining [the student] were within the scope of Alsup’s official authority as an in-school suspension teacher. Finally, there is no allegation that Alsup acted with malice toward [the student].
- Determining the need to restrain a school-age child—let alone determining and employing the proper means and manner to accomplish that restraint—are about as far from the sort of clerical or ministerial acts that can be compelled by a writ of mandamus as one can imagine. By the same token, therefore, they are equally as far from the sort of ministerial or clerical acts that fall outside the broad scope of official immunity.
- …Policy 2770 permitted Alsup to determine whether and when it was necessary to use physical restraint on a student…
- If five in-school suspension teachers had been confronted with a child acting the way [the student] was acting, all five could have acted differently and yet each could have remained in compliance with Policy 2770. This is the very antithesis of a clerical or ministerial duty.
In finding for the teacher in this case, the Court concluded by saying, “Official immunity was created to protect him from claims he acted negligently under such circumstances, and the narrow exception to that immunity for clerical or ministerial acts does not come close to applying.”
In rendering its opinion, the Supreme Court directs the trial court to enter summary judgment in the teacher’s favor.
We at EdCounsel were thankful for the opportunity to support public educators and the Independence School District throughout this case. This case was a reminder of the continuing challenges that public educators can face on a daily basis, the challenges and decisions that have to be made in real time, and then the stress and time that a lawsuit can impose on district staff. We are confident that the strong language of the Missouri Supreme Court will be read to support and protect those in public education in the future.