School officials have immunity in case over alleged sexual abuse, Kentucky Supreme Court rules

By Karen Kidd | Nov 16, 2018

FRANKFORT, Ky. (Legal Newsline) – Breathitt County Schools officials are shielded by qualified immunity in litigation brought by the victim of alleged sexual abuse by a former teacher, the Kentucky Supreme Court recently ruled.

In their 38-page opinion, the Supreme Court justices found that the victim of the alleged sexual abuse, identified as "Jane Doe," did not show a violation of a constitutional, statutory "or other clearly established right" in the case.

"Doe also does not show that the school officials willfully or maliciously intended to harm her or acted with a corrupt motive," the opinion continued. "Like the Court of Appeals, we cannot conclude that the school officials acted in bad faith so as to deprive them of qualified official immunity."

In its discretionary review, the high court affirmed an earlier Kentucky Court of Appeals decision to reverse a lower court's decision to deny summary judgment to Breathitt County Schools officials based on qualified immunity. The Appeals Court found that qualified immunity does apply because the officials' actions had been discretionary, within the scope of their authority and undertaken in good faith.

Kentucky Supreme Court Deputy Chief Justice Lisabeth T. Hughes  

The high court also limited holding to the specific claims alleged by the mother and Doe.

Kentucky Supreme Court Deputy Chief Justice Lisabeth T. Hughes wrote the 38-page opinion in which Chief Justice John D. Minton, Justice Bill Cunningham, Justice Laurance B. VanMeter, Justice Daniel J. Venters and Justice Samuel T. Wright III concurred. Justice Michelle M. Keller dissented in part.

The litigation arose from sexual abuse Jane Doe allegedly suffered at the hands of Charles Mitchell, a former teacher at Sebastian Middle School, beginning in 2009. 

Mitchell ultimately pleaded guilty to charges of third-degree rape, sodomy in the third degree, first-degree sexual abuse, and distribution of pornographic images to minors. He now is a registered sex offender.

Breathitt County Schools officials named as defendants in the litigation sought qualified official immunity from litigation by Jane Doe and her mother. Mother and daughter claim the officials breached ministerial duties to supervise students and to report abuse and acted in bad faith in how they handled misconduct claims allegations against Mitchell.

The Breathitt County Schools officials named in the litigation are former Superintendent Arch Turner, former Assistant Superintendent David Napier, teacher Michael Bowling and Sebastian Middle School Principal Reggie Hamilton.

Turner was also sentenced to two years in prison in 2012 and fined $250,000 over allegations arising from a vote-buying scheme.

In her partial dissent, Keller said she would have affirmed the trial court's decision.

"We are not deciding the merits of Doe's case here today, as she still must satisfy all of the elements of a negligence action, including breach, causation and injury, and all of her other alleged causes of action not based in negligence," Keller said in her partial dissent. "But, from a review of the record and the applicable law, the school officials do not possess immunity warranting dismissal of Doe's claims at this stage of the proceedings."

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