Second Circuit Struggles with Student Suicide Action

Lev Craig and Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

Determining a school’s liability in a student suicide case is a fraught and complex issue: While plaintiffs argue that schools should make more significant efforts to prevent a student’s suicide—especially since many student suicides are caused by repeated incidents on school campuses, like severe peer bullying—courts have generally been reluctant to impose new or heightened duties on school counselors.

In 1991, the Maryland Court of Appeals in Eisel v. Board of Education of Montgomery County was the first court to hold that school officials may have a legal duty to try to prevent a student’s suicide. In Eisel, a wrongful death and survival action, a 13-year-old girl committed suicide after telling school counselors that she intended to kill herself.  Citing the in loco parentis doctrine—which requires a person or organization, such as a school, to take on some of the functions and responsibilities of a parent—the court concluded that “school counselors have a duty to use reasonable means to attempt to prevent a suicide when they are on notice of a child or adolescent student’s suicidal intent.”

As Eisel is only mandatory authority within the state of Maryland, subsequent courts, particularly those outside of the Maryland state court system, have continued to grapple with defining the scope of a school’s duty to prevent student suicides.  On July 14, 2016, the Second Circuit in Spring v. Allegany-Limestone Cent. Sch. Dist. dealt with this issue.

Gregory Spring was a 17-year-old high school special education student with several disabilities, including Tourette’s Syndrome, ADHD, and a rare birth defect affecting his brain. Spring’s medical conditions affected his speaking, learning, concentration, and communication skills. His symptoms worsened in stressful or unfamiliar situations and included involuntary motor and vocal tics and outbursts, the inability to recognize emotions by tone of voice, and difficulty interpreting and responding to social cues. Other students bullied, threatened, and harassed Spring on a near-daily basis because of his disabilities. In June 2013, he committed suicide.

Spring’s family sued the Allegany-Limestone Central School District and Board of Education as well as a number of individuals affiliated with the school, alleging violations of the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), the Rehabilitation Act, § 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, the New York Constitution, the New York Civil Rights Law, and New York common law. The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint, which the Western District Court of New York granted on grounds including that Spring failed to establish he had a disability.  The plaintiffs appealed this decision.

The Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of plaintiffs’ due process, equal protection, retaliation, § 1983, and state constitutional claims, but vacated and remanded its dismissal of the ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims.  The court found that plaintiffs had “alleged sufficient facts to make plausible that the impact on Gregory’s learning ability…constituted a substantial limitation” and therefore Spring’s conditions qualified as disabilities under the ADA.  Touching on the periphery of the holding in Eisel, the Second Circuit concluded that “because the complaint explicitly identified the effects of a student’s conditions on his major life activities and the impact on the student’s learning ability prompted a need for special education services and constituted a substantial limitation,” the district court erred in dismissing these claims.

If you or your family has been affected by a school’s failure to adequately protect its students, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.