Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Don't miss
Home / Featured / Court revives school public-accommodation suit

Court revives school public-accommodation suit

A Missouri appeals court has revived a lawsuit against a Kansas City-area school district and a company that employs substitute teachers in which a fifth-grader accused a substitute of calling him a racial epithet.

On March 10, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals Western District unanimously reversed a lower-court ruling granting the North Kansas City School District summary judgment. The court ruled that the circuit court applied the wrong standard in reaching the decision.

The plaintiff, referred to as M.N., alleged that Debi Davis was a substitute teacher and employee of Kelly Services Inc.

In October 2015, she was assigned by Kelly Services as a substitute teacher in M.N.’s classroom at West Englewood Elementary School, M.N. alleged. The two had not met prior to that assignment.

According to the opinion, written by Judge Edward R. Ardini Jr., the student alleged that while Davis was passing out crossword puzzles to students, she called him and another African American student a racial epithet.

Later in the day, Davis allegedly used the epithet again and cursed while speaking to M.N., according to the suit.

According to the opinion, M.N.’s mother heard about the comments through another child’s mother and contacted the school’s principal. The principal advised the mother that they had received calls about Davis’ conduct and that the school’s liaison officer would conduct an investigation.

The principal notified Kelly Services of the reports, and later informed the mother that Davis would not be allowed to return to M.N.’s school.

Kelly Services also conducted an investigation. Davis, who was not a party to the suit, denied using any racial slurs or curse words. The company counseled her on appropriate and professional language and classroom management.

Davis was terminated in March 2016 after she failed to accept a substitute teaching assignment after 150 days and hung up on a Kelly Services employee who called to offer her an assignment, the opinion said.

M.N. filed suit against the district and Kelly Services in October 2016 in Clay County Circuit Court. He alleged one count of discrimination in a place of public accommodation.

The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting that “two racial slurs cannot constitute the denial of a public accommodation,” Ardini wrote in the opinion.

Judge David P. Chamberlain granted summary judgment. He held that there was no evidence either defendant knew or should have known that Davis would call the student a derogatory name.

On appeal, M.N. argued the direct-liability standard on which Chamberlain relied was inapplicable to his claim and that a vicarious liability standard should apply. The court agreed.

Ardini said Chamberlain relied on a 2012 Western District ruling, Subia ex rel. Doe v. Kansas City, Missouri School District, in coming to the conclusion that M.N. needed to prove the defendants knew or should have known that Davis would call the student offensive names.

But Ardini wrote that, unlike Subia, M.N. “has not asserted that he was the victim of student-on-student harassment, nor is he attempting to hold Defendants directly liable for their decision to remain idle in the face of known harassment.”

Instead, he was seeking in his suit to hold the defendants vicariously liable for Davis’ remarks, Ardini said.

“Because M.N. seeks to impute liability on Defendants based purely on their legal relationships, we find that the trial court erred in applying the direct liability standard set forth in Subia and in requiring M.N. to prove that Defendants knew or should have known Davis would make racially derogatory comments to students in her classroom,” Ardini said.

Chief Judge Karen King Mitchell and Judge Cynthia L. Martin concurred.

Kirk Holman of Holman Schiavone in Kansas City represented the student. Kim Seten of Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete represented the district. Neither attorney responded to messages seeking comment.

The case is M.N. v. North Kansas City School District et al., WD82959.