Court Rejects Teacher’s Suit Over Classroom Mold

By Mark Walsh — March 15, 2012 2 min read
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A Virginia teacher who suffered sinusitis, bronchitis, and other ailments because of exposure to excessive mold in her classroom could not sue her school district on a constitutional claim that her bodily integrity had been violated, a federal appeals court has ruled.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., held that teacher Christina Hood’s claims were foreclosed by a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision that local governments, such as cities and school districts, did not have a duty under the 14th Amendment’s due-process clause to provide minimal levels of safety and security in the workplace.

Hood worked as a 4th grade teacher at Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Suffolk, Va., in the 2007-08 school year when she encountered high levels of humidity in the school, court papers say. Books and papers in her classroom were soggy and dehumidifiers were placed around the school.

By September 2007, Hood had suffered itchy eyes and a rash around her mouth. An assistant principal told her that “we know there is a mold problem and it comes up through the ground in the summertime,” according to court papers. Hood’s doctor diagnosed her with sinusitis, bronchitis, lip inflammation and infection, and mold exposure.

School administrators took air samples from Hood’s classroom and at one point claimed that mold spore counts in the classroom were not abnormally high. But Hood says in court papers that her own look at the test results revealed that levels of certain species of mold were higher in her classroom than outside.

Hood’s condition worsened by October 2007 and her doctor instructed her not to work in the classroom. School administrators denied her request for a transfer, her suit said, and Hood continued working at the school. By the end of the school year, aggressive cleaning methods actually increased mold growth, her suit said.

Hood sued the Suffolk school district, claiming that the district had a practice of concealing the harmful effects of excessive moisture and mold. And she claimed the district and its officials deliberately created a dangerous work environment, which violated her 14th Amendment substantive due-process right to bodily integrity.

A federal district court dismissed her suit. In a March 14 decision in Hood v. Suffolk City School District, the 4th Circuit court panel unanimously affirmed the lower court.

The 4th Circuit panel agreed with the district court that Hood’s claims were governed by the Supreme Court’s 1992 decision in Collins v. City of Harker Heights. In that case, the high court rejected a civil rights claim brought on behalf of a city sanitation worker who had died of asphyxia while trying to repair a sewer line.

The Supreme Court held that the 14th Amendment’s due-process clause “does not impose an independent federal obligation upon municipalities to provide certain minimal levels of safety and security in the workplace.”

The 4th Circuit panel said, “We conclude, like the district court, that Hood asserted a substantive due process claim asserting a right to be free from harm caused by the dangerous condition of her workplace. As the district court properly recognized, however, the Supreme Court’s decision in Collins has plainly stated that this type of claim does not allege a cognizable violation of a federal constitutional right.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.