A federal judge has approved a $1.1 million settlement for a student, now in his teens, who claimed he was repeatedly abused by the janitor at his elementary school in Russell County. After the suit survived two pretrial rulings, the insurer for the county school board agreed to pay that figure last month in a mediation session just 10 days before trial.
Lawyers for the student said the case presented difficult issues of school board liability under Title IX. In a fee petition, the plaintiff’s lawyers said several prominent Virginia trial lawyers rejected the “highly risky” case.
The case produced rulings that could guide future litigation.
U.S. District Judge James P. Jones concluded that the actual knowledge of school principals about reports of abuse could impute liability to the school board under Title IX. Jones denied a motion to dismiss on that issue in Doe v. Russell County School Board (VLW 017-3-193). Doe’s attorneys said they believed the issue had not been addressed previously in the 4th Circuit.
But Jones held, in a summary judgment ruling, that qualified immunity protected the principals from liability because a social service agency had deemed staff-on-student abuse reports to be unfounded. The issue might be one of first impression in the U.S., according to the plaintiff’s counsel. Jones’ ruling on that issue came in VLW 018-3-052.
The student’s failure-to-train claims against the school board survived both rounds of pretrial rulings in what plaintiff’s counsel described as a “fairly new area of law.”
For his lawyers, the child’s claim presented tough facts and unusual procedural issues. Evidence showed “John Doe” was abused by school custodian Bobby Gobble both inside and outside the school setting. Gobble allegedly befriended the victim’s family and took Doe to Gobble’s house where Doe lived for a period of several months without objection by Doe’s parents or guardians, according to evidence cited in Jones’ opinions.
The “unfounded” conclusion by welfare officials also weakened the case for school officials’ liability.
The family’s status raised procedural hurdles. Roanoke lawyer Paul R. Thomson III was hired by the child’s mother, but the mother did not have custody of the child. Although Doe was living with foster parents, it was not a permanent placement. The father was out of the picture.
Thomson arranged for attorney Reelia R. Watson of Abingdon to serve as next friend for the infant plaintiff. In approving the settlement, Jones agreed no guardian was necessary. As next friend, Watson filed a motion for approval of the settlement.
Turned down by Virginia lawyers with education law experience, Thomson reached out to a Michigan-based firm specializing in school violence cases, according to the fee petition. The Fierberg National Law Group PLLC agreed to serve as co-counsel and to split the 40-percent contingency fee. Monica H. Beck of Michigan brought Title IX expertise to the case, according to the fee petition.
Lapses in student protection
Evidence uncovered in discovery tipped the scales for the student.
Gobble admitted to repeatedly molesting Doe in the school boiler room and custodian’s office as well as in Gobble’s home, his sister’s home and his vehicle. Gobble ultimately confessed to abuse of Doe and other students. He was convicted in state court and is serving a 100-year sentence.
Doe suffered severe and chronic PTSD, according to a psychiatrist.
The case exposed weaknesses in school practices, according to the judge’s summary of facts. An administrator named as Title IX coordinator from 2011 to 2012 did not know he held that position. He did not know about Title IX regulations and guidance. He knew of no steps taken to prevent sexual harassment of students.
His successor testified she did no follow-up on the Gobble case. Even though a principal learned that a vulnerable student was living in the same bedroom with a school employee and spent time behind closed doors with that employee, the principal undertook no investigation and did nothing to increase supervision of the employee.
Training was deficient, court records indicated. The judge said deposition testimony indicated school employees received little to no training on warning signs of sexual harassment, how to prevent it, how to investigate it and how to remedy it.
“There is evidence that would justify the conclusion that teachers and administrators overlooked numerous red flags and encouraged Gobble’s relationship with Doe, which may have emboldened Gobble and intensified the abuse,” Jones wrote.
Nevertheless, Jones ruled the individual school administrators were protected by qualified immunity on civil rights claims.
Forty-percent fee approved
The school board and the defendant school principals were represented by Jim H. Guynn Jr. of Salem and members of his firm. The lawyers took 30 depositions, including questioning of Gobble at Wallens Ridge State Prison. The plaintiff’s lawyers said they put in 1,595 hours on the case.
The parties had two mediation sessions with U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert S. Ballou on Jan. 24 and March 1. The deal was struck at the second session, according to the fee petition.
Jones approved the 40-percent attorney fee in an April 4 order.
The settlement called for the Virginia Association of Counties Group Self-Insurance Risk Pool to pay $900,000 cash and to purchase a structured settlement annuity with a cost of $200,000. The order directed that $374,311.77 be held in trust for the “use, benefit, education, maintenance, and support” of Doe. Lynchburg’s Ron Feinman drafted and set up the trust, according to the order.
After approval of the settlement, Thomson said he could only say that “settlement was reached to the mutual satisfaction of the parties.”
Guynn declined comment based on a confidentiality agreement that was part of the settlement.