BUTLER v. DOE

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Court of Appeals of Georgia.

BUTLER v. DOE, et al.

No. A14A0448.

Decided: July 16, 2014

Phillip L. Hartley, Hieu Minh Nguyen, for Appellant. Marc Paul Lubatkin, for Appellee.

Jane Doe, a minor, by and through her best friend and legal guardian, Mary Roe, filed suit against Kevin Butler, a teacher at Cass Middle School (the “School”), for personal injuries that Doe suffered when she was allegedly sexually assaulted by another student at the School as a result of Butler's alleged failure to properly supervise the students during an after-school activity.1 Butler moved for summary judgment on the ground that his supervision of the students in question was a discretionary function that entitled him to official immunity. The trial court denied Butler's motion, holding that his alleged failure to supervise the students amounted to a ministerial function to which official immunity does not apply. Butler argues on appeal that the trial court erred in concluding that his acts were ministerial rather than discretionary. We agree.

Viewed in the light most favorable to Doe,2 the record shows that in 2010, Butler was a teacher at the School and also served as a teacher advisor for the color guard. On the afternoon in question, the School had two after-school functions in the gymnasium—a color-guard presentation followed by a choral concert. Doe was participating in both functions.

Butler agreed to supervise and facilitate the color-guard presentation. To that end, he met the four participating color-guard students, including Doe, at a designated time and gathered them in the chorus room, a room directly adjacent to the gymnasium. The group left their personal belongings in the chorus room and Butler then escorted the students to a mobile classroom to retrieve their equipment. Butler thereafter watched the students perform their color-guard presentation and then helped them return their equipment to the mobile classroom.

Afterwards, the color-guard group returned to the chorus room to gather their personal belongings. Butler was aware that Doe was performing in the choral concert immediately following the color-guard presentation and, shortly after the group entered the chorus room, Doe left and went to the restroom to change her clothing. There is a factual dispute as to whether the remaining three students stayed in the chorus room and/or whether Butler inquired as to whether those students intended to leave the School or attend the concert.3 Regardless, Butler, who was not responsible for attending or supervising the subsequent choral concert, left the chorus room and entered the adjoining gymnasium. There, he joined a crowd of 150 to 200 teachers, students, and parents—including Doe's mother—to watch the first 15 to 20 minutes of the concert before he left the School.

Doe alleges that she reentered the chorus room after returning from the restroom and, although the other three color-guard students were there when she initially entered, two eventually left and she was sexually assaulted by the third. She thereafter sued Butler, asserting that his act in leaving the students unsupervised in the chorus room following the color-guard performance resulted in her sexual assault. The trial court denied Butler summary judgment after concluding that he was not entitled to official immunity because he had “an absolute ministerial duty to protect” the color-guard students remaining in the chorus room and his total failure to supervise them constituted a breach of that ministerial duty. This appeal follows.

Georgia law is well established that the “monitoring, supervising, and controlling the activities of students is a discretionary action protected by the doctrine of official immunity.”4 Contrary to the holding of the trial court, this is true even if the allegations involve a teacher's total failure to supervise the students under his or her care.5 Indeed, the complete failure to perform a discretionary act is “the same as the negligent performance of that act for the purposes of determining whether such action was discretionary or ministerial.”6

There is simply no way to construe the evidence so as to conclude that Butler's alleged failure to supervise was anything other than a discretionary act. Indeed, as is readily apparent from the facts set forth supra, Butler was responsible for monitoring and ensuring the safety of the students while he shuttled them between numerous rooms in the school, aided them in getting their equipment and supplies, facilitated a successful color-guard presentation, and transitioned them from one after-school activity to another. Suffice it to say, the assessment of whether direct supervision and, if so, what degree of oversight was required to accomplish the foregoing tasks necessarily involved Butler's personal and professional judgment.

The dissent, like the trial court, nonetheless relies upon a purported School policy that Butler was required to ensure his students' attendance at after-school functions in support of its position that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether his failure to make certain that Doe reported to the choral concert constituted the breach of a ministerial duty.7 This argument fails for two reasons. First, this contention fails because the undisputed record shows that any such duty, to the extent one existed, fell upon the chorus instructor, not Butler. But in any case, even if we accept the dissent's strained reading of the record and assume that Butler violated an established school policy, “[s]upervision of students is considered discretionary even where specific school policies designed to help control and monitor students have been violated.”8 It follows, then, that Butler is protected by the doctrine of official immunity and is entitled to summary judgment.

Judgment reversed.

I dissent from the majority's opinion because Kevin Butler has failed to establish that there are no genuine issues of material fact.

As the party moving for summary judgment, Butler bore the burden of demonstrating that he was entitled to official immunity by showing that the specific acts he performed were discretionary. See Howell v. Willis, 317 Ga.App. 199, 203, 729 S.E.2d 643 (2012). Consequently, although the question of whether a governmental employee is entitled to official immunity is a question of law that must ultimately be decided by the trial court, where the relevant facts are in dispute, the trial court cannot resolve the factual issues on a motion for summary judgment. Nichols v. Prather, 286 Ga.App. 889, 896(4), 650 S.E.2d 380 (2007). Instead, a jury must resolve the conflicting facts. Id.

Here, Doe alleged that Butler was negligent for leaving her and another student alone in the locked chorus room. In support of her claim that Butler was required to ensure her attendance at the concert, Doe submitted Butler's job description indicating that he had a duty to maintain prompt and regular attendance. Although Butler presented evidence that attendance taking at after-school events was not mandatory, Doe averred that her attendance was mandatory and that attendance was taken. Moreover, Butler deposed that, as a teacher advisor for the color guard, he had a responsibility to make certain that the participating students either had a ride home following the group's performance or stayed for the concert. Doe presented evidence that Butler did not ask the students about their plans. Instead, Butler left the students alone in the locked chorus room and went to the concert, whereupon Doe was sexually assaulted by another student.

The evidence does not show as a matter of law that the acts of ensuring that the students had a ride home or were going to attend the concert required Butler to exercise personal judgment, examine facts, reach reasoned conclusions, or act in a way not specifically directed. Instead, making sure that students are either picked up following an after-school activity, or attend a subsequent after-school activity, such as the choral concert in this case, is a simple, absolute, and definite action. See McDowell v. Smith, 285 Ga. 592, 593–594, 678 S.E.2d 922 (2009). In light of this evidence, there is a question of fact regarding Butler's duties following the color guard performance that precludes the grant of summary judgment. See Dalton v. City of Marietta, 280 Ga.App. 202, 203, 633 S.E.2d 552 (2006) (“Even slight evidence will be sufficient to satisfy the plaintiff's burden of production of some evidence on a motion for summary judgment; such evidence may include favorable inferences drawn by the court from the evidence presented.”) (citation and punctuation omitted).

Teachers and school employees have an important responsibility to protect our children, and it is unwise to advance the “de facto absolute immunity for school employees” that has developed in our case law where questions of fact remain. See McDowell, supra, 285 Ga. at 594, 678 S.E.2d 922 (noting only one recent case in which this Court has held that a school employee's actions were ministerial). Providing such absolute immunity to school employees

abrogates the constitutional right of citizens to seek redress for injuries inflicted by the ministerial acts of school employees, especially upon young children who are not capable of caring for themselves or exercising judgment. If Georgia school employees are to be clothed with absolute immunity under any and all circumstances, that is a decision to be made by the Georgia General Assembly; it is not the function of this, or any, court.

Smith v. McDowell, 292 Ga.App. 731, 737, 666 S.E.2d 94 (2008). Since Butler has not shown that the undisputed evidence established that his actions were discretionary, he has failed to establish that he was entitled to official immunity. Accordingly, I would affirm the trial court's denial of Butler's motion for summary judgment.

I am authorized to state that Chief Judge Phipps joins in this dissent.

DILLARD, Judge.

ANDREWS, P.J., ELLINGTON, P.J., DOYLE, P.J., McMILLIAN, J., concur.PHIPPS, C.J., and MILLER, J. dissent.

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