Sixth Circuit affirms dismissal of abuse claims against special-education teacher

Domingo ex rel. N.D. v. Kowalski, No. 14-3957 (6th Cir. Jan. 7, 2016).

An aerial view of Perkins Township, Sandusky, where the alleged abuse took place. (credit: Nyttend / Wikimedia)

An aerial view of Perkins Township, Sandusky, where the alleged abuse took place. (credit: Nyttend / Wikimedia)

The plaintiffs here are autistic and developmentally delayed students who were in defendant Marsha Kowalski’s special-education class. One of Kowalski’s teaching aides has testified that Kowalski’s methods were abusive. According to this testimony, she gagged one student with a bandana to stop him from spitting. She forced another student to sit on a toilet with her pants down, in view of her classmates, to “help” toilet-train her. She strapped yet another student to a toilet to keep her from falling off. The plaintiffs assert that Kowalski’s methods violated their substantive-due-process rights.

A majority of this Sixth Circuit panel rejects the plaintiffs’ assertions and affirms the district court’s summary judgment in favor of Kowalski. The lead opinion concludes that Kowalski’s actions served a legitimate pedagogical purpose, weren’t excessive, and weren’t motivated by malice or callousness. Judge Batchelder, concurring in the result, would hold that Kowalski’s gagging of the student was grossly disproportionate and believes a reasonable jury could conclude that the gagging was motivated by malice. She concurs in the result, however, because she believes there is no evidence of injury.

Judge Boggs dissents in part, noting that a reasonable jury could infer that gagging the student caused him injury. He argues that courts should be particularly wary of concluding that there is no injury where, as here, a child’s disabilities make it difficult for him to express the injury he suffered.