Published Online: May 13, 2009

Appeals Court Upholds Verdict in School District Battery Case

A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld a jury verdict that found the Mitchell School District was not responsible for a former high school teacher's inappropriate touching of a student.

The jury decided last year that Brittany Plamp was the victim of battery by former teacher and coach Andy Tate during her senior year in 2006. But the jury awarded no monetary damages after finding that the school district was not responsible.

Plamp had sought $750,000 in damages.

A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the jury verdict and rulings made by U.S. Magistrate Judge John E. Simpko, who presided over the trial.

Plamp said Tate fondled her in a classroom under the guise of saying he was checking her body for signs of an eating disorder. She also said Tate made sexual comments to her.

The appeals panel said Plamp did not show that school officials with the proper authority failed to take action after learning about Tate's misconduct.

After Plamp's parents reported Tate's misconduct to School District Superintendent Joseph Graves, he called the police and immediately suspended Tate and refused to let him on school property without a police escort. The district eventually fired Tate.

The magistrate threw out Plamp's claim under federal civil rights law before the trial, and he ruled in the school district's favor during the trial on Plamp's claim under a federal law, Title IX, which prohibits discrimination in education programs.

The appeals panel said Plamp presented sufficient evidence to show Tate violated her constitutional rights, but she failed to show the relevant school officials knew about any continuing, widespread pattern of misconduct. She also failed to show the district's training on harassment was inadequate, the judges said.

On the Title IX claim, the school district would be liable only if it was deliberately indifferent and the appropriate official failed to take action after knowing about the misconduct, the appeals panel said.

A guidance counselor and other teachers who had heard vague complaints about Tate were not the appropriate officials responsible for acting on such misconduct because they had no control over Tate, the judges said. Plamp failed to show that school principals knew about Tate's behavior, and the school superintendent took immediate action when he found out about the misconduct, the appeals court said.

Two female students had previously reported that they felt uncomfortable in Tate's classroom, and an anonymous person talked to a counselor but refused to discuss details or give Tate's name when talking to a principal, the appeals panels said.

The jury considered Plamp's claim that the school district was vicariously liable for Tate's battery under state law, and the appeals court upheld the jury's decision that the district was not liable.

"Based on the evidence presented, a reasonable jury could have found that Tate was acting outside the scope of his employment when he battered Plamp and that the School District could not have foreseen his actions," the appeals panel wrote.

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