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Barnett v. Caldwell

Supreme Court of Georgia

January 29, 2018

BARNETT et al.

          Grant, Justice.

         High school student Antoine Williams tragically died after engaging in horseplay with another student while his teacher was out of their classroom. Appellants Jena Barnett and Marc Antoine Williams, Antoine's parents, filed a complaint against Appellee Phyllis Caldwell, who was Antoine's teacher at the time of his death. They alleged that Caldwell was liable in her individual capacity for Antoine's wrongful death because she had been negligent in supervising his classroom. The trial court granted Caldwell's motion for summary judgment, concluding that she was entitled to official immunity because her acts were the product of discretionary decisions concerning the supervision of students. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Barnett v. Atlanta Indep. Sch. Sys., 339 Ga.App. 533 (792 S.E.2d 474) (2016). We granted certiorari to consider this ruling. We conclude that student supervision is not unalterably discretionary in all respects, but here, because the school's policy was not so definite as to render Caldwell's actions ministerial, she is entitled to official immunity. We therefore affirm.


         On appeal from the grant of summary judgment, legal questions are reviewed de novo, Atlanta Dev., Inc. v. Emerald Capital Inv., LLC, 258 Ga.App. 472, 477 (574 S.E.2d 585) (2002), and this Court also conducts a de novo review of the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, to determine if there is a genuine issue of material fact. Shekhawat v. Jones, 293 Ga. 468, 469 (746 S.E.2d 89) (2013). So viewed, the evidence shows as follows.

         On the afternoon of October 14, 2008 at Benjamin E. Mays High School, teacher Phyllis Caldwell left her classroom. Caldwell's classroom was in a cluster system that shared a common entrance with the classroom of another teacher, Gibril Kanu, and their classrooms were divided by a bifold wall. Antoine Williams was a student in Caldwell's seventh-period class, the final class of the school day. At approximately 2:45 p.m., Caldwell asked Kanu to "listen out" for her class, and left the classroom-for what purpose, it remains unclear. The rooms were connected, but Kanu could not see into Caldwell's classroom from where he sat. There was also a hall monitor who was a retired assistant principal nearby, but Caldwell chose not to ask the hall monitor to supervise the class.

         While Caldwell was gone, Antoine and another student engaged in horseplay that caused Antoine to fall to the floor; the other student landed on top of him. Antoine subsequently collapsed and was lying unconscious on the ground when Caldwell returned to the classroom at about 3:15 p.m.[1] Caldwell called 911. Emergency medical technicians took Antoine to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The medical examiner determined that he died from blood loss resulting from the laceration of a major blood vessel by a dislocated collarbone.

         After he learned that Antoine had been pronounced dead, the school principal called Caldwell and other school staff into his office to get details about the incident. Caldwell told the principal that she was in the classroom the entire time. But a few days later, he learned that Caldwell was in fact not in the classroom when Antoine collapsed, and a subsequent investigation carried out by an independent company also concluded that Caldwell was away from her classroom when Antoine was injured. When the principal confronted Caldwell about her lie, Caldwell gave several different explanations for why she left the classroom-to use the telephone, to make copies, and to find another student. Later, in her deposition, Caldwell said she left the classroom to use the restroom.

         Section 6.5 of the school's faculty handbook provides supervision guidelines for teachers: "The classroom teacher is solely responsible for the supervision of any student in his or her classroom. Students are never to be left in the classroom unsupervised by an APS certified employee." (emphasis in original). Nowhere does the faculty handbook define "supervise" or "unsupervised." Caldwell, though, was aware of the policy, and the principal explained that supervision means "close proximity to" students, and told investigators that he had provided examples to teachers demonstrating that students should not be out of their eyesight. He believed the policy was unambiguous and nondiscretionary, and emphasized that school employees would be disciplined if they did not follow it. He also acknowledged, however, that there could be circumstances requiring a teacher to leave a classroom, including for up to 15 minutes. He further stated that a teacher (or another certified employee) may be able to supervise students even if the teacher could not see them; instead, if the teacher could hear and have a "general understanding" of what was going on in a classroom, that "would still constitute supervision." The principal at one point summarized the policy as requiring "a visible, auditory, or physical awareness of what someone is doing at a particular time."

         After Antoine's death, his parents sued Caldwell, among others, for wrongful death based on negligent supervision, alleging that she was liable in her individual capacity because she left her classroom unsupervised in violation of the school's policy. The trial court granted summary judgment to Caldwell, concluding that because the allegations of negligence involved a duty to supervise students in the classroom, her absence was a discretionary act entitled to official immunity. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that "well-established precedent makes clear that decisions relating to the control and supervision of students are discretionary actions for which teachers are entitled to official immunity." Barnett, 339 Ga.App. at 533. This Court thereafter granted the parents' petition for certiorari, posing a single question: Did the Court of Appeals err in concluding that the classroom teacher in this case was entitled to official immunity?


         The question of whether Caldwell can be held liable for a violation of the school's policy on supervision turns on the doctrine of official immunity. That immunity, originally a creature of case law in Georgia, see Gilbert v. Richardson, 264 Ga. 744, 752 (452 S.E.2d 476) (1994), now arises out of Article I, Section II, Paragraph IX (d) of the Georgia Constitution, which establishes that public employees may be subject to suit for negligent performance or nonperformance of their "ministerial functions" or "if they act with actual malice or with actual intent to cause injury in the performance of their official functions"; otherwise, they "shall not be subject to suit or liability, and no judgment shall be entered against them, for the performance or nonperformance of their official functions." Put more plainly, teachers may be held personally liable for negligence relating to their official duties only when performing "ministerial" acts; "discretionary" acts are only subject to suit when performed with actual malice or intent to cause injury. McDowell v. Smith, 285 Ga. 592, 593 (678 S.E.2d 922) (2009); Daniels v. Gordon, 232 Ga.App. 811, 813 (503 S.E.2d 811) (1998); Davis v. Dublin City Bd. of Educ., 219 Ga.App. 121, 122 (464 S.E.2d 121) (1995).

         Accordingly, in cases like this one where there is no evidence of malice or intent to injure, the determination of whether official immunity bars the suit against the defendant turns on the issue of whether the defendant's actions were discretionary or ministerial. Id. We have defined a ministerial act as "commonly one that is simple, absolute, and definite, arising under conditions admitted or proved to exist, and requiring merely the execution of a specific duty." Murphy v. Bajjani, 282 Ga. 197, 199 (647 S.E.2d 54) (2007). A discretionary act, on the other hand, "calls for the exercise of personal deliberation and judgment, which in turn entails examining the facts, reaching reasoned conclusions, and acting on them in a way not specifically directed." Id.

         The Court of Appeals has long held that student supervision is typically a discretionary function. See, e.g., Leake v. Murphy, 274 Ga.App. 219, 225 (617 S.E.2d 575) (2005), overruled on other grounds by Murphy, 282 Ga. at 199; Butler v. Doe, 328 Ga.App. 431, 433 (762 S.E.2d 145) (2014). But the determination of whether the action at issue is discretionary or ministerial is made on a case-by-case basis, and the dipositive issue is the character of the specific actions complained of, not the general nature of the job. McDowell, 285 Ga. at 594-595. In short, "the important question in the context of official immunity is not merely whether an officer owed a duty of care, but rather, whether the official owed a duty that is particularized and certain enough to render her duty a ministerial one." Eshleman v. Key, 297 Ga. 364, 367 (774 S.E.2d 96) (2015).

         Even in the context of functions that are typically discretionary, a written (or unwritten) policy, a supervisor's specific directive, or a statute may establish a ministerial duty-but only if the directives are so clear, definite, and certain as to merely require the execution of a specific, simple, absolute, and definite duty, task, or action in a specified situation without any exercise of discretion. Roper v. Greenway, 294 Ga. 112, 114-115 (751 S.E.2d 351) (2013); Grammens v. Dollar, 287 Ga. 618, 620 (697 S.E.2d 775) (2010); McDowell, 285 Ga. at 593-594. As we said in Eshleman, "even when an officer clearly owes a duty of care and is absolutely required to do something, unless she has been commanded-by law or by the policy or directive of her employer-to do a particular thing, she still is engaged in the performance of a discretionary function." 297 Ga. at 366. It is undisputed that the complained-of actions in this case related to student supervision, typically a discretionary function. So the question here is whether the school's policy-or the ...

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