Special Relationship

Special Relationship


This case comes from Mississippi and involves tragic circumstances in which a nine year-old girl was permitted on multiple occasions to be checked out of school by an unauthorized adult who allegedly sexually assaulted her. A three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit concluded that based on the totality of the alleged circumstances, the school had a duty to protect the student from the injuries that she suffered. This was a new holding for the Fifth Circuit that appeared to conflict with binding precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court and represented a fundamental change to school districts’ standard of liability. The school district sought en banc review of the panel’s decision.

On March 23, 2012, the Fifth Circuit held that the student did not have a special relationship with her school, and her school therefore had no constitutional duty to protect her from harm inflicted by a private actor. The question the court addressed was whether the school’s failure to check the adult’s identity and be certain that he was authorized to take the girl amounted to a constitutional violation. Supreme Court precedent, Fifth Circuit precedent, and the decisions of every other circuit to address the special relationship exception compelled the court to conclude that it did not. Instead, state law provides the appropriate legal framework to address the girl’s injury. Doe v. Covington County Sch. Dist., No. 09-60406 (Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals). LAF’s Attorney: Lisa A. Brown, Thompson & Horton, LLP, Houston.