129 F.3d 560 (11th Cir. 1997), 95-2799, Wyke v. Polk County School Bd.

Docket Nº:95-2799, 95-3653.
Citation:129 F.3d 560
Party Name:Carol WYKE, individually and as personal representative of the Estate of Shawn David Wyke, a minor deceased, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. POLK COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD, Max Linton, individually and as Principal of McLaughlin Junior High School of Polk County, and James Butler, individually and as Vice-Principal of McLaughlin Junior High School of Polk County,
Case Date:November 19, 1997
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
 
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Page 560

129 F.3d 560 (11th Cir. 1997)

Carol WYKE, individually and as personal representative of

the Estate of Shawn David Wyke, a minor deceased,

Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

POLK COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD, Max Linton, individually and as

Principal of McLaughlin Junior High School of Polk County,

and James Butler, individually and as Vice-Principal of

McLaughlin Junior High School of Polk County, Defendants-Appellants.

Carol WYKE, individually and as personal representative of

the Estate of Shawn David Wyke, a minor deceased,

Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

POLK COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD, Max Linton, individually and as

Principal of McLaughlin Junior High School of Polk County,

and James Butler, individually and as Vice-Principal of

McLaughlin Junior High School of Polk County, Defendants-Appellees.

Nos. 95-2799, 95-3653.

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

November 19, 1997

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Dabney Loy Conner, Wofford H. Stidham, Lane, Trohn, Clarke, Bertrand, Vreeland & Jacobson, P.A., Bartow, FL, for Defendants-Appellants in 95-2799 and Defendants-Appellees in 95-3653.

Mark G. Morgan, M.D., Law Offices of Rood and Morgan, Tampa, FL, for Wyke.

Appeals from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

Before ANDERSON, Circuit Judge, and KRAVITCH and FAY, Senior Circuit Judges.

FAY, Senior Circuit Judge:

This litigation arises from the tragic suicide of a 13 year old boy. The trial court dismissed the federal claim, submitted the common law negligence questions to the jury, and entered judgment based upon the jury verdict. These consolidated appeals raise the following issues: (1) whether plaintiff's § 1983 claim was so "insubstantial" as to deprive the district court of federal question jurisdiction; (2) whether the defendants violated plaintiff's constitutional rights by failing to provide her son with suicide intervention services or by failing to notify her of her son's suicide attempt; (3) whether, under Florida law, the Polk County School Board owed any duty to prevent Shawn's suicide; and (4) whether, under Fabre v. Marin, 623 So.2d 1182 (Fla.1993), the trial court submitted the proper parties to the jury for the apportionment of liability under Florida's comparative fault statute. We find (1) that the trial court had jurisdiction to entertain plaintiff's § 1983 claim, (2) that plaintiff failed to establish a violation of any constitutional rights, and (3) that the Polk County School Board had a duty to notify plaintiff of her son's suicide attempts, which occurred on school grounds, during school hours. Issue (4) is an open question under Florida law, and we certify that question to the Florida Supreme Court.

I.

A.

This suit arose from circumstances surrounding the death of plaintiff Carol Wyke's thirteen-year old son, Shawn, who committed suicide at home on the evening of October 17, 1989. The trial court dismissed Wyke's federal claim, submitted the common law negligence questions to the jury, and entered judgment based upon the jury verdict. The evidence presented at trial, which for appeal purposes we must construe in the light most favorable to Wyke, revealed that in the few days before his death, Shawn twice attempted suicide at school, during school hours. School officials, who were made somewhat aware of both incidents, failed to hold Shawn in protective custody, failed to provide or procure counseling services for Shawn, and failed to notify either Wyke or Shawn's "grandmother," Helen Schmidt, 1 of the attempts. Prior to his actual death, neither Wyke nor Schmidt had any knowledge of Shawn's suicidal intent, but both were aware that Shawn had emotional and behavioral problems, which indicated to them a need for counseling. 2

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Shawn's first known suicide attempt occurred on October 16th in the boys' restroom at school. Shawn was found in the restroom by another student, Jonathan, trying to hang himself with a football jersey. The two boys talked and eventually left the restroom together. When Jonathan got home from school, he told his mother, Brenda Morton, about the incident. 3 Morton immediately phoned the school, 4 and spoke with a man whose voice she recognized as Jim Bryan, the school's Dean of Students. Morton relayed Jonathan's story to Bryan. Bryan recognized the seriousness of the situation, and assured Morton that "he would take care of it." 5

Bryan responded to the situation by calling Shawn into his office. 6 He read Shawn some verses from the Bible, and talked about their meaning with him. 7 Shawn appeared very upset in the beginning, but seemed to feel better after talking with Bryan. Bryan believed that he had done "all he [could] do with Shawn that day," and took no other action with regard to Shawn's suicide attempt. 8 When asked by Wyke why he did not notify anyone else of the situation, Bryan responded that "there was just too much red tape" and that he thought "he had it under control." 9 Morton testified at trial that had she known Bryan was not going to notify Wyke of Shawn's suicide attempt, she would have done so herself.

Although unclear when, Shawn's second suicide attempt also occurred in the boys' restroom. Marlene Roberts, a school custodian, testified that she and a student--who Roberts could not positively identify as Shawn--were in the cafeteria one day, talking about the child's problems with his grandmother. The student went to the restroom

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and was gone longer than Roberts felt he should have been. When she went to check on him, the boy emerged and said that if he had stayed in the restroom any longer, he would have killed himself. Roberts jokingly told the student that she would do it for him; they both laughed, and the boy went back to the cafeteria. Roberts then went into the restroom, where she found a coat hanger and cord hanging from the ceiling. She threw them into the trash and also went to the cafeteria. There, Roberts saw James Butler, the school's Vice-Principal, and told him that a boy had been talking about killing himself. She did not specifically identify the boy, nor did she tell Butler about the coat hanger and cord. Butler responded by asking Roberts if she could not find anything else to do. 10 The next day or the day after that, Roberts heard that a student had committed suicide; she did not know if it was the same student she had spoken with.

Several experts in the field of suicide prevention testified about the need for suicide prevention training in public schools. These witnesses testified that the Polk County School Board ("School Board" or "Board") provided inadequate training for school administrators and teachers. An adequate training program would have involved mandatory written policies requiring parental notification, holding students in protective custody, and arranging for counseling services. The experts further indicated that without training, school employees would tend to underestimate the "lethality" of suicidal thoughts, statements, or attempts. The experts' ultimate conclusion was that if the School Board's employees had been adequately trained in suicide prevention, Shawn would not have committed suicide on October 17, 1989.

B.

Wyke, individually and as personal representative of Shawn's estate, filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the School Board and both the Principal and Vice-Principal of McLaughlin Junior High School (collectively, "Defendants"), 11 alleging that the Defendants' failure to train employees in suicide intervention/prevention constituted deliberate indifference to Wyke's constitutional rights to the care, custody, management, companionship, and society of her son. Wyke also asserted a pendent state wrongful death claim, arising from the alleged breach of Defendants' duty to supervise Shawn. In both the federal and state claims, Wyke asserted that Shawn's death foreseeably resulted from the Defendants' failure to (i) notify her of Shawn's suicide attempt, (ii) hold Shawn in protective custody, (iii) procure psychiatric intervention and counseling for Shawn, or (iv) provide appropriate support and guidance for Shawn.

Defendants responded to Wyke's complaint with a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. They argued that the Supreme Court's decision in DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dep't of Soc. Servs., 489 U.S. 189, 109 S.Ct. 998, 103 L.Ed.2d 249 (1989), clearly foreclosed Wyke's § 1983 claim, because under DeShaney, the School Board had no constitutional duty to protect Shawn from harming himself while he was in his own home. Absent such a duty, Defendants argued, there could be no constitutional violation for the Defendants' failure to provide Shawn with suicide intervention services. DeShaney thus rendered Wyke's federal claim too "insubstantial" to support federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. And because there was no diversity of citizenship, it followed that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear Wyke's state wrongful death claim.

The district court denied Defendants' motion to dismiss. Defendants answered, and pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the parties consented to proceed before a United States

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Magistrate Judge. During the presentation of Wyke's case, Defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law on both the federal and state claims. Fed.R.Civ.Pr. 50(a). As to the federal claim, Defendants reasserted their DeShaney argument, and emphasized that Wyke had failed to establish any "policy" for which the School Board, as a local government entity, could be held liable under § 1983. As to the state claim, Defendants argued that their duty to supervise Shawn did not extend to nonschool activities...

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