March 14, 2018

In cases involving alleged abuse of a minor child courts owe “unusual deference” to a school official’s decision to report reasonably suspected abuse and neglect

In cases involving alleged abuse of a minor child courts owe “unusual deference” to a school official’s decision to report reasonably suspected abuse and neglect
Maco v. Baldwin Union Free School District et. al, USCA Second Circuit, Docket No.17-1539

Rhonda L. Maco, alleging that two Baldwin Union Free School District employees, Lori A. Presti, and Carrie Billitzki reported "potential child abuse to a state agency in retaliation for a complaint Maco made about Billitzki’s treatment of Maco’s minor child [Minor Child]," sued the Baldwin School District, Presti and Billitzki, [Defendants] in federal district court.

The district court dismissed Maco's complaint, holding that "no reasonable jury could find that the Defendants had a retaliatory motive or that Maco sustained an injury. Maco appealed the district court summary dismissal of her petition contending that "Defendants failed to show entitlement to judgment because a reasonable juror could find that Presti’s report of suspected child abuse was 'motivated or substantially caused' by Maco’s complaint about M.C.'s treatment" by Presti.

The Circuit Court sustained the district court's ruling. Rejecting Maco's arguments, the court explained  that it "owes 'unusual deference' to school administrators (or 'mandated reporters') who are required by law to report suspected child abuse, absent a 'clear showing of retaliatory or punitive intent,' where the administrator has 'a sufficient basis to suspect potential abuse,' the report is, as a matter of law, not retaliatory."

The decision states the Minor Child told Presti that Maco had checked Minor Child out of school and taken her home, where Maco had slapped her face multiple times and struck her three times with a belt. School records showed that Maco had signed Minor Child out of school for an appointment earlier that day. This, said the court, was a “sufficient basis to suspect potential abuse,” even though Presti’s pre-report investigation was relatively brief and did not include speaking to Minor Child’s teacher.

Although Maco, relying on decisions interpreting Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, argued that a retaliation claim can lie even where there are “objectively valid grounds” for the retaliatory action, the Circuit Court noted that in the specialized context of a school administrator’s decision to report suspected child abuse, a more demanding standard applies.

The court also rejected Maco’s assertion of protected speech involving a complaint she made concerning Billitzki in June 2013, ten months prior to Presti’s April 2014 report of suspected child abuse. Although Billitzki was admittedly upset with Maco’s complaint at the time, there was no evidence in the record that Maco’s complaint was a consideration when Presti reported the abuse.

Noting that it is true that there is no “bright line . . . beyond which a temporal relationship is too attenuated to establish a causal relationship” in retaliation cases, in this case the court observed that "the lapse of time between speech and adverse action (and the lack of evidence connecting them) negates any inference of causation," even if, as Maco suggests, Minor Child’s report of corporal punishment provided Defendants with their “first actual opportunity to retaliate.”

The Circuit Court also noted that Maco’s remaining evidence was "even less probative of retaliatory motive" with respect to the fact that Presti reported the suspected abuse without first discussing Minor Child’s behavior with the child's teacher, even though Presti allegedly should have known that Minor Child was a habitual liar.

Presti, said the court, correctly evaluated Minor Child’s credibility on the day in question as "Maco had, in fact, taken [Minor Child] out of school and struck her multiple times—this evidence is scarcely probative of motive." Although this and other factors set out in the decision, may, in some circumstances, "support an inference of retaliatory motive," in this instance the court said it concluded that Maco’s evidence falls short of the requisite “clear showing of retaliatory or punitive intent.”

The court, in consideration of the “unusual deference” it owes to school administrators’ “decisions to report reasonably suspected abuse and neglect,” concluded that Presti’s report was non-retaliatory as a matter of law."

The decision is posted on the Internet at: