School Officials Held Not Responsible For Sexual Assault By Former Teacher: Bethoney v. Town of Middleborough, United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, C.A. No. 06-12224-RWZ
PD&P defended the Town of Middleborough, Middleborough High School, and several school officials in an action brought by a former student and his parents arising out of a sexual assault committed by a former teacher, Gregory Pathiakis, on December 23, 2003. Pathiakis sexually assaulted the student-plaintiff during his junior year, three weeks after Pathiakis resigned from Middleborough High School. The plaintiffs also claimed, that after the assault, Middleborough took insufficient measures to protect the student-plaintiff from his classmates’ abuse and ridicule. The plaintiffs brought tort and civil rights claims attacking Middleborough’s hiring, review, and resignation process. They also argued that Middleborough was directly responsible for the assault.
Pathiakis hand-delivered his resume and letters of recommendation to Middleborough school officials during the Fall of 2002. Unknown to Middleborough, several weeks earlier, Pathiakis was forced to resign from his teaching position at a parochial school because his personal website (to which he directed students) arguably contained racist material. After reviewing his resume, the Middleborough High School Principal, a department head, and the Superintendent of Schools interviewed Pathiakis and, after conducting a successful CORI check, hired him as a math teacher. No one from the administration contacted Pathiakis’ references. During Pathiakis’ first year, the department head observed him in the classroom. She concluded that he was focused, comfortable, and ran a well-organized class. Before the school year ended, the Principal met with Pathiakis to discuss his teaching experience over the previous months.
The following year, Pathiakis was the student-plaintiff’s geometry teacher. The student-plaintiff never complained to the administration about Pathiakis. On December 3, 2003, school officials received a report that Pathiakis had telephoned a student seeking marijuana and had also entertained another student at his home and given the student rides to school. Upon learning this, the Assistant Principal met with the two involved students, who confirmed the allegations. The Assistant Principal reported his findings to the Principal who, within hours, secured Pathiakis’ resignation. School officials received no information of alleged sexual misconduct on the part of Pathiakis.
Three weeks later, on December 23, 2003, Pathiakis and the student-plaintiff began instant messaging. Eventually, the two agreed to meet at a local restaurant. According to the student-plaintiff, Pathiakis then lured him to his apartment where he forced him into oral sex. The student-plaintiff told his parents about the assault a week later. The parents, in turn, reported it to the Brockton Police Department.
Upon the student-plaintiff’s return to school, the Principal made counseling available to him and advised his teachers to keep a close eye on him. The student-plaintiff testified that the teachers “were all very supportive and, like, don’t worry about it, we’ll work to get you caught up. Just take it easy.” His classmates, however, allegedly harassed him. The student-plaintiff never reported the harassment to the administration.
PD &P moved for summary judgment on all counts. The United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts (Zobel, J.) dismissed each of plaintiffs’ claims in a 28-page decision. The Court held that the Principal and Superintendent could not be held liable as supervisors because their alleged actions or inactions were not “affirmatively linked” to the sexual assault that occurred three weeks after Pathiakis’ resignation. Further, the Court was not convinced that, as of the date of Pathiakis’ resignation, the Principal and Superintendent had adequate control over Pathiakis to prevent the assault. More importantly, the Court found that neither the Principal nor the Superintendent had notice of any behavior that was likely to result in a violation of the student-plaintiff’s constitutional rights. Nor did the Town of Middleborough, the Court concluded, deprive the student-plaintiff of his civil rights by failing to check Pathiakis’ references. “Had Middleborough contacted Pathiakis’ references, it might have discovered that he had been discharged for potentially exposing his previous students to racist material. That is not enough to conclude that the plainly obvious consequences of hiring him would be a student’s rape.” The Court used the same rationale to refuse recovery based on Middleborough’s alleged negligent supervision. Upon the student-plaintiff’s return to school, the Principal advised his teachers to report any students who talked about the assault. Even if his peers subjected the student-plaintiff to ridicule and harassment, the Court held there was insufficient evidence to support the claim that Middleborough was deliberately indifferent to such harassment.