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If you want to sue after your kid gets screwed by a public school, you have to notify the mayor first, not the superintendent, court rules

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.

PDF icon Complete ruling319.46 KB
PDF icon Initial complaint477.07 KB

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The best part of our legal system is when justice is denied due to a procedural technicality.

Why couldn't the superintendent have forwarded the letter to the mayor or city manager?

Or why couldn't the family have sent the letter to the correct person once the court or the city notified them they did it wrong? Let me guess: it's because by the time anyone told them, the deadline had passed.

I don't see any purpose this can serve, except to enrich the lawyers who argue over these obscure details, and make it hard for people to seek justice without hiring an expensive lawyer who knows how to follow the obscure procedures.

Voting closed 60

in the first place? Oh yes, the kid suffered severe "emotional distress" by being suspended. But give us a big pile of cash and they'll suddenly be "cured".

This is the real problem with our "justice" system, the increasing perception that every error demands a lawsuit, and that the lawsuit must result in an unjustified payout for (insert any one of a dozen fabricated "reasons" here).

As for not knowing or following procedural rules, shouldn't that fall on the plaintiff's lawyer, and not the judge who (rightfully so) dismisses the case for failure to follow those rules?

Voting closed 14

As somebody who works in regulatory work: It's because the legal system, similar to the regulation world, is built of years and years of piling new rules on top of the old ones every time there's an issue. This rule about sending a letter to a person authorized to receive it was the basis for establishing titles of those people and that policy was used to build some other law/reg for what those people can do, and there's other case law built on what the timeline is and what counts as receiving, etc, etc. The problem with law (and regulation) is that there's always like 10% of cases that don't make any sense and they suck up 90% of the time and effort to get them sorted out so the first instinct somebody has is to Make A Rule so that Doesn't Happen Again. But they already had 4 or 5 rules that were close so instead of taking a wholistic look and simplifying the whole thing, there's now just 6 or 7 rules. It's an entire jenga tower of rules that all rely on the ones below them for the system to work, and no one is willing or has the authority to go back to basics and unravel it.

This is true of the law at every level - look at the Supreme Court - and the reason why countries generally only have really major legal reforms after society-collapsing incidents like revolutions or wars or coups.

Voting closed 25

Oh, not so fast, the 2 instances, could be true, he could skip school and still show up to ride the bus home.

Voting closed 11

As we learn in school, rules is rules.

Voting closed 8

Public schools in larger districts need more accountability, not less.

Voting closed 6

The dissenting opinion seems entirely reasonable and the “right” thing to do.

But also a suspension caused posttraumatic stress? Here I thought I was just a trouble maker but apparently missed out on some sweet settlement bucks.

Voting closed 9

Were you wrongly suspended as part of a pattern in which your school treated students of your marginalized race unfairly?

(I don't know any of the facts of this case, but that's the argument they're making, and there's plenty of clinical research that racial trauma is very real.)

Voting closed 4

Who's turn was it to be the Chief Executive Officer of Cambridge when the suit was filed?

The reason I bring this up is that the City of Cambridge doesn't have a Mayor like most of the cities in the rest of Massachusetts. How and when this happened would probably make an interesting front page story for the site; Cambridge is not part of Boston but that doesn't make much of a difference here.

Voting closed 7