Doe v. Cambridge Pub. Sch.

Citation101 Mass.App.Ct. 482,194 N.E.3d 217
Decision Date10 August 2022
Docket Number21-P-877
Parties John DOE v. CAMBRIDGE PUBLIC SCHOOLS.
CourtAppeals Court of Massachusetts

101 Mass.App.Ct. 482
194 N.E.3d 217

John DOE
v.
CAMBRIDGE PUBLIC SCHOOLS.

No. 21-P-877

Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Middlesex.

Argued June 9, 2022
Decided August 10, 2022


Sydney M. Wright, for the defendant.

Sania S. Santos, Quincy, for the plaintiff.

Present: Meade, Rubin, & Sullivan, JJ.

MEADE, J.

194 N.E.3d 219

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of the defendant's motion to dismiss the plaintiff's claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress, on the basis of failure to comply with the presentment requirement of the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (MTCA), G. L. c. 258, § 4. On appeal, the defendant claims that (1) where the plaintiff mailed a presentment letter to

101 Mass.App.Ct. 483

the superintendent of the defendant Cambridge Public Schools (superintendent), the plaintiff failed to satisfy the presentment requirement, and (2) the plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that the proper designated executive officer received actual notice of the plaintiff's written claim, so as to satisfy the actual notice exception to the presentment requirement of G. L. c. 258, § 4. We reverse that portion of the order denying the motion to dismiss the plaintiff's negligence claim.

1. Background. We recite the facts asserted in the complaint, "taking them as true for purposes of evaluating the motion to dismiss." Edwards v. Commonwealth, 477 Mass. 254, 255, 76 N.E.3d 248 (2017), S.C., 488 Mass. 555, 174 N.E.3d 1153 (2021). The plaintiff is an African American student who attended a public elementary school in the city of Cambridge (city). On December 20, 2017, some female students complained that certain unnamed male students were sharing photographs of naked women on their cell phones after school, while waiting for the bus. The plaintiff was singled out by the school's principal and assistant principal as one of the students sharing the photographs. However, during a meeting between the plaintiff's grandmother and school officials, it was revealed that the plaintiff neither attended school that day nor was permitted by his grandmother to bring his cell phone to school. At the conclusion of the meeting, the plaintiff was allowed to return to class, only to be removed again a short time later, and the plaintiff was ultimately suspended without a meaningful opportunity to be heard.1

Thereafter, the principal notified the plaintiff's grandmother that a readmission hearing was scheduled for January 2, 2018, at which it would be determined if any further suspension was necessary. On January 2, the plaintiff was unable to leave his house because of extreme nervousness and fear of further disciplinary action. As a result, the meeting was rescheduled for the following day. The next day, the plaintiff arrived at school with his father and grandmother, but was told to return home because the principal was unavailable to meet. Later that day, the school informed the plaintiff's father that the readmission meeting was canceled, and the plaintiff would be permitted to return to school the following day, January 4, 2018.

101 Mass.App.Ct. 484

Following the suspension, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education investigated the incident, determined that the suspension violated the plaintiff's student rights, and thus ordered the suspension expunged from his student record. As a result of the wrongful suspension, the plaintiff suffered severe emotional distress, manifested in physical symptoms including anxiety, sleep deprivation, weight gain, and posttraumatic stress.

The plaintiff filed a four-count complaint alleging (1) negligent infliction of emotional distress under the MTCA, G. L. c. 258, § 1 et seq. ; (2) discrimination based on race, in violation of G. L. c. 76, § 5, and

194 N.E.3d 220

42 U.S.C. § 2000d ; (3) discrimination based on sex in violation of G. L. c. 76, § 5, and 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a) ; and (4) violation of his right to due process of law. The defendant filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiff's complaint in its entirety pursuant to Mass. R. Civ. P. 12 (b) (6), 365 Mass. 754 (1974), for failure to comply with the presentment requirements of G. L. c. 258, § 4. The judge determined that the plaintiff made proper presentment to the superintendent and denied the motion. Alternatively, even if presentment to the superintendent was improper, the judge found that the city's then-mayor (mayor) received actual notice of the plaintiff's claim through a meeting between the mayor and the plaintiff's grandmother in December of 2018, thus satisfying the actual notice exception to G. L. c. 258, § 4. Following the denial of the motion, the defendant exercised its right to an interlocutory appeal on the grounds of failure of presentment solely as to the count for negligent infliction of emotional distress.2 See Theisz v. Massachusetts Bay Transp. Auth., 481 Mass. 1012, 1013-1014, 112 N.E.3d 777 (2018) (right to interlocutory appeal for claim of defective presentment pursuant to G. L. c. 258, § 4, "is proper pursuant to the doctrine of present execution").

2. Standard of review. We review the denial of a rule 12 (b) (6) motion to dismiss de novo. See A.L. Prime Energy Consultant, Inc. v. Massachusetts Bay Transp. Auth., 479 Mass. 419, 424, 95 N.E.3d 547 (2018). We accept "the facts alleged in the complaint as true and draw[ ] all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor." Edwards, 477 Mass. at 260, 76 N.E.3d 248. However, "[w]e do not regard as ‘true’ legal conclusions cast in the form of factual allegations." Id., quoting Leavitt v. Brockton Hosp., Inc., 454 Mass. 37, 39 n.6, 907 N.E.2d 213 (2009). To

101 Mass.App.Ct. 485

survive a motion to dismiss, the facts alleged must " ‘plausibly suggest[ ] (not merely [be] consistent with)’ an entitlement to relief." Iannacchino v. Ford Motor Co., 451 Mass. 623, 636, 888 N.E.2d 879 (2008), quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 557, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007). "The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement,’ but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully" (citation omitted). Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009).

3. Discussion. a. Presentment letter. The defendant claims that where the plaintiff's presentment letter was addressed to the superintendent of the Cambridge Public Schools, instead of the correct executive officer as defined by G. L. c. 258, §§ 1, 4, the plaintiff failed to satisfy the presentment requirement of the MTCA, and thus, the judge erred in denying the motion to dismiss so far as it related to the negligence claim. We agree.

The MTCA provides in pertinent part that "[a] civil action shall not be instituted against a public employer on a claim for damages ... unless the claimant shall have first presented his claim in writing to the executive officer of such public employer within two years after the date upon which the cause of action arose." G. L. c. 258, § 4. "Proper presentment is accordingly a condition precedent to bringing suit [against a public employer], and failure to do so is fatal to the plaintiff's complaint." Drake v. Leicester, 484 Mass. 198, 199, 140 N.E.3d 413 (2020).

194 N.E.3d 221

Here, on December 19, 2019, the plaintiff sent a presentment letter to the superintendent, explaining the circumstances of the plaintiff's wrongful suspension and the emotional harm sustained therefrom. However, a school superintendent is not an executive officer for purposes of presentment to a city. See G. L. c. 258, § 4. See also Holahan v. Medford, 394 Mass. 186, 188-189, 474 N.E.2d 1117 (1985). In pertinent part, G. L. c. 258, § 1, defines the "executive officer" of a city, for presentment purposes, as "the mayor of a city, or [an individual] as designated by the charter of the city." General Laws c. 258, § 4, further adds that in the case of a city or town, presentment is sufficient if made to the "mayor, city manager, town manager, corporation counsel, city solicitor, town counsel, city clerk, town clerk, chairman of the board of selectmen, or executive secretary of the board of selectmen."

The Supreme Judicial Court has consistently required strict compliance with the presentment requirement of the MTCA, so that the Commonwealth and other public employers may retain a sufficient opportunity both to investigate and settle claims and to

101 Mass.App.Ct. 486

prevent future claims, through notice to the proper executive officers. See Drake, 484 Mass. at 200-201, 140 N.E.3d 413. Where the plain, unambiguous language of G. L. c. 258, §§ 1, 4, does not list school superintendents among the individuals to whom presentment to a city may properly be made, the plaintiff's presentment letter failed to strictly comply with the presentment requirement of the MTCA. See Drake, supra.

The plaintiff nonetheless argues, and the dissent agrees, that where suit was filed against Cambridge Public Schools, rather than the city, the superintendent was the proper executive officer for the...

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    • United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Massachusetts
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