The Massachusetts Appeals Court today dismissed part of a lawsuit by the family of a Cambridge fourth-grader suspended from school for something he didn't do, because the family first alerted the city school superintendent it planned to sue, rather than the mayor or city manager.
State law requires people thinking about suing a city or town to first send a "presentment letter" stating their issues to the place's designated "executive officer" before filing suit. In its ruling, the court said the family of a student at the Kennedy-Longfellow Elementary School blew it because they sent their "presentment letter" to the school superintendent, rather than the mayor or city manager, who are defined as municipal "executive officers" in state law, unlike school superintendents, who are not.
The 2-1 ruling means the family can no longer seek a tort claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress against Cambridge Public Schools. However, the family can continue to press its claims of discrimination based on race and sex and violation of his due-process rights. A Middlesex Superior Court judge had initially denied the school system's request to toss the entire suit; CPS then appealed on just the emotional-distress claim.
At issue was the way the student, who is Black, was pulled out of class and then suspended in December, 2017, initially on allegations he was among a group of boys sharing phone photos of nude women while waiting for the bus after school one day. Only problem: He wasn't even in school that day. According to the court's summary of the case, the school kept him out of class when school returned in January before suddenly telling the family he could simply return to school.
Following the suspension, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education investigated the incident, determined that the suspension violated the plaintiff's student rights, and thus ordered the suspension expunged from his student record. As a result of the wrongful suspension, the plaintiff suffered severe emotional distress, manifested in physical symptoms including anxiety, sleep deprivation, weight gain, and posttraumatic stress.
The court acknowledged its stance could lead to "harsh results," but said the law's the law:
At bottom, we acknowledge that the presentment requirements of G. L. c. 258, § 4, may lead to harsh results. ... However, that is how the statute is written, and it is incumbent on plaintiffs to strictly comply with its requirements.
In a dissent, Justice Peter Rubin sided with the family. He noted their suit was against "Cambridge Public Schools" rather than "the city of Cambridge" and that the state law lists specific office holders as examples, not the only ones who can be served with a "presentment letter," with a reference to "nominal chief executive officers or boards."
And when it comes to Cambridge Public Schools, the superintendent is such a "nominal chief executive officer," Rubin wrote. He said this has been true since at least 1993, with enactment of a state law that transferred from school committees to superintendents the power to hire and fire principals and school department administrators. He also pointed to the then Cambridge school superintendent's contract, which specifically designated him as "the Chief Education Officer and Chief Executive Officer of the School District" and added:
The question here is whether the superintendent is the executive officer of the public employer that was sued, the Department of Public Schools of the City of Cambridge. That is precisely the officer to whom the child presented his claim before suing the Department. And because this was proper under the clear language of the statute, the tort count should be allowed to proceed along with the rest of the lawsuit.