In a long awaited decision, Somerset County Superior Court Judge Yolanda Ciccone ruled that two Hunterdon County school districts failed to prove negligence against the parents of alleged bullies.
This recent decision was issued in the matter of V.B., a Minor by his Parent and Guardian, L.B. v. Flemington-Raritan Regional Board of Education and Hunterdon Central Regional High School and Board of Education; Hunterdon Central and Flemington-Raritan Regional v. C.W., J.A., and K.I., Dkt. HNT-L-95-13, a highly publicized case involving a school district’s third-party claims against the alleged student bullies and their parents.
Plaintiff, V.B., a minor student originally filed a complaint against the Flemington-Raritan Regional Board of Education and the Hunterdon Central Regional High School and Board of Education (“Defendants/Third Party Plaintiffs”) alleging violations of the New Jersey Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act (“Anti-Bullying Act”), N.J.S.A. 18A:37-13 et seq., and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”), N.J.S.A. 10:5-2 et seq. V.B.’s complaint alleges he was subjected to a hostile school environment from fourth (4th) grade through tenth (10th) grade, by both students and employees of the Defendants, due to his weight, perceptions about his sexual orientation, and his disability.
Plaintiff alleges that throughout his time at the Copper Hill School, Reading-Fleming Intermediate School, J.P. Chase School, and Hunterdon Central Regional High School he endured the following: taunting by students calling him “fat” and “chubby;” had pasta thrown on him; was “pantsed” (pulling down and actually exposing his underwear); intentionally hit with kickballs; and called anti-gay slurs. In 10th grade at Hunterdon Central Regional High School, it is alleged V.B. was hospitalized beginning in April 2012 into June of 2012 for anorexia, as a result of the comments from students regarding his weight. V.B. alleges that despite years of complaints, made by himself and his mother, Defendants/Third Party Plaintiffs failed to stop the harassment and bullying behaviors of the students.
V.B. did not name as defendants the students responsible for the alleged acts of bullying, or their parents to the original complaint. The defendant school districts then filed third-party complaints against the alleged bullies and their parents (“Third-Party Defendants”) seeking indemnity and contribution if V.B. prevails in his suit against the school districts. The third-party complaints were predicated upon the New Jersey Joint Tortfeasors Contribution Act, and alleged failures to supervise the various acts of bullying alleged to have been carried out, under a negligence theory.
In March of 2014, Judge Ciccone denied the Third-Party Defendant’s motion to dismiss, ruling that Defendants/Third-Party Plaintiffs could file suit against 13 students and their parents for the alleged bullying incidents, and ordered discovery on whether the third-party claims were cognizable.
However, on August 3, 2015, Judge Ciccone ruled in favor of the parents, dismissing the school districts’ third party claims for indemnification and contribution, ruling that the actions of students who allegedly bullied another student over the course of several years did not prove that their parents were negligent. Yet, Judge Ciccone ruled that Flemington-Raritan Board of Education’s claims against five students, three for assault and battery, and two for battery against the alleged victim, V.B., remained. The assault and battery claims included the alleged conduct such as hitting V.B. with kickballs, throwing pasta at him and pantsing. Therefore, the parents of the students who remain in the matter still may be held indirectly liable, and financially responsible if V.B. prevails on his claims against the districts. The Judge dismissed the Third-Party Defendants who were alleged to have only took part in taunting and name calling against V.B.
Judge Ciccone also ruled that the third-party complaints were not cognizable for violations of the NJLAD, however, were cognizable for violations of the Anti-Bullying Act.
The decision is significant, as it permits school districts to bring a cause of action against alleged student bullies in order to spread potential liability and ultimate financial compensation, even in cases where the alleged victim plaintiff has not filed against those individuals themselves. Districts should be mindful of this decision, and should contact their board attorneys for guidance in regards to Harassment Intimidation and Bullying (“HIB”) policies, programming and response strategies, and operative HIB reporting procedures.