In a published decision that comes as a blow to the plaintiff’s bar and a victory for schools, cities and other government entities faced with legal claims over the actions of employees, the Minnesota Court of Appeals has upheld the dismissal of a sexual abuse lawsuit against the Columbia Heights School District.
Writing for the three-judge panel in a case of first impression, Judge Carol Hooten held the school district is immune from a claim of vicarious liability under the Minnesota Municipal Tort Claims Act.
Although that act provides for vicarious liability in instances when employees are “acting within the scope of their employment or duties,” Hooten wrote that Christopher Lloyd Warnke — a former football coach and weight room supervisor at Columbia Heights High School — had engaged in sexual misconduct “for his own personal reasons, not ‘on behalf of’ the school district ‘in the performance of duties or tasks lawfully assigned by competent authority.’”
After Warnke pleaded guilty to one count of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct and two counts of solicitation of a minor in 2011, the plaintiff — identified only as Jane Doe 175 — sued the school district on claims of vicarious liability, negligence, and negligent supervision.
Anoka County District Court Judge Bethany Lindberg dismissed all three claims on summary judgment. On the negligence claims, Lindberg held — and the appeals court concurred — that Warnke’s conduct was not foreseeable, so the district should not be on the hook.
“Doe contends that inadequate training by the school district might be the reason why the school district’s employees failed to discern the significance of the alleged red flags,” Hooten wrote. “But Doe does not identify any additional training that would have caused school district employees to view the benign interactions she characterizes as red flags as indicators of possible sexual abuse.”
Margaret Skelton, the attorney for the school district, praised the ruling.
“The decision protects taxpayers when public entities do everything right but their employees, for their own personal reasons, engage in conduct that causes injury,” said Skelton, an attorney at Roszak & Maloney in Minneapolis.
Jeff Anderson, the St. Paul attorney who represented Doe, said the decision came as a disappointment for his client, who was 14 years old when she was molested by Warnke.
“It’s been almost a five-year legal odyssey,” Anderson said. “She stood up for the right reasons. This did happen. She was harmed. There was no question about that. But the system did not, and could not, give her relief.”
While Anderson didn’t rule out the possibility of a petition to the Supreme Court, he said the Court of Appeals’s decision likely put an end to the litigation.
“We knew this would be a close legal issue,” Anderson said. “Sometimes you get a decision where you immediately say, ‘This is going to be appealed.’ This was not one of those cases.”
Although the court cast its holding on immunity from vicarious liability as a case of first impression, Anderson said it’s hard to know how big an effect it will have.
Still, there was enough at stake that the Minnesota Association for Justice, the Minnesota School Boards Association, the League of Minnesota Cities and the Association of Minnesota Counties all weighed in with amicus briefs.
Susan Naughton, who penned the brief for the cities and counties, said the ruling is significant, in part because it extends beyond school districts to cities, counties, towns, joint powers board, libraries and all other entities that meet the definition of a municipality under Minn. Stat. 466.01
“The big deal for us is that we didn’t want public funds to be used to compensate for the criminal acts of rogue public employees who are acting out of the scope of their duties,” Naughton said. “From our perspective, it doesn’t change Minnesota law; it just gives effect to the Legislature’s unambiguous language which limits vicarious liability of municipalities to those actions of employees that occur within the scope of their office or employment.”
Naughton pointed out that municipalities remain subject to direct liability for claims such as negligence in hiring or negligence in supervision.
In its brief, the Minnesota Association of Justice urged the Court of Appeals to reverse the district court and instead interpret “scope of employment” through the more favorable lens of common law. Under common law, the MAJ argued, Warnke was acting in the scope of employment because some of the conduct at issue occurred in the workplace during work hours.
“The protection of children should take precedence over any expansion of governmental or municipal immunity that puts children at greater risk of sexual abuse,” the MAJ asserted in its brief. “Both public policy and legislative intent favor prioritizing children over expanding the doctrine of immunity into areas never intended.”