Gonzalez v. Ysleta Independent School Dist.

Decision Date20 July 1993
Docket NumberNo. 90-8725,90-8725
Citation996 F.2d 745
Parties, 84 Ed. Law Rep. 59 Gloria GONZALEZ, Individually and as Next Friends of Jessica Gonzalez, and Victor Gonzalez, Individually and as Next Friends of Jessica Gonzalez, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. YSLETA INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

Edward W. Dunbar, Mark Berry, Christi, Berry & Dunbar, El Paso, TX, for defendant-appellant.

Enrique Moreno, Moreno & Fry, El Paso, TX, for plaintiffs-appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas.

Before HIGGINBOTHAM and DUHE, Circuit Judges, and HUNTER *, District Judge.

PATRICK E. HIGGINBOTHAM, Circuit Judge:

This appeal raises difficult questions of law in a difficult, tragic setting. Jessica Gonzalez was sexually molested by Andres Mares, her first grade teacher, while attending one of the elementary schools within the Ysleta Independent School District. After Jessica's parents, Gloria and Victor Gonzalez, discovered that the YISD Board of Trustees had elected to keep Mares in the classroom in the face of similar allegations of sexual abuse two years earlier, they brought this § 1983 action against the school district in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. The case went to the jury on the claim that the district policy regarding sexual abuse was a legal cause of the denial of Jessica's constitutional right to bodily security. The verdict was $500,000.

On appeal, YISD contends that the district court should have instructed the jury that the school district could be held liable under § 1983 only if the Board's failure to relieve Mares of his teaching duties manifested a deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of students. The school district also submits that the trial evidence is insufficient to support a finding of liability under this heightened standard of fault. We agree and, finding that the second claim requires reversal, we reverse and render judgment in favor of the school district.

I.

Ysleta Independent School District is the seventh-largest in Texas, educating over 50,000 students. Prior to 1984, YISD had no formal policy regarding sexual abuse of students by teachers; the issue was instead left to the discretion of the individual school principals. In 1984, YISD adopted a written policy incorporating provisions of the Texas Family Law Code. In accordance with Texas law, the policy provided that "any person(s) who suspects that a child's physical or mental health or welfare has been, or may be, adversely affected by abuse or neglect ... must report his or her suspicions to the Texas Department of Human Resources and/or to a law enforcement agency." The primary responsibility for contacting the Department for Human Resources remained with the school principal, who was charged with making an oral report "without delay" and a written report within five days. 1 The results of the operation of this policy were fairly uniform: With one exception, every complaint of abuse from 1983 to 1987 led to the permanent removal of the teacher in question from any contact with school children. 2

The exception to this otherwise unbroken pattern of teacher removal was Andres Mares, the man who molested Jessica Gonzalez. Mares' penchant for inappropriate conduct with his young female students first surfaced in 1981. He was at that time a Spanish teacher at the Ascarate Elementary School. In November 1981, Nellie Morales, Principal of Ascarate, received a complaint from the parent of one of his students. The parent informed Principal Morales that Mares frequently allowed girls to sit on his lap during class, a practice the parent and Morales considered highly improper. After consulting Rudy Resendez, Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Schools, Morales responded to this report with an informal memorandum and an oral reprimand of Mares. She nonetheless received a second, more serious complaint from the same parent one month later, alleging that Mares had this time placed his hand around the waist of her daughter. Even though the child and Mares both verified the incident, Morales' disciplinary response was limited to issuing a second oral reprimand and directing Mares to enter a general "improvement" program. This sanction in any event apparently had a salutory effect, as allegations regarding Mares' conduct came to a temporary halt.

In January 1985, however, Principal Morales received an urgent phone call from Graciela Pena, the mother of one of the female students in Mares' fifth grade Spanish class. Mrs. Pena insisted that Morales remove her daughter, Leticia, from Mares' class at once. When asked the reason for this request, Mrs. Pena, after some hesitation, informed Morales that Leticia had told her that Mares had placed his hand on her waist and stuck his tongue in her ear. Morales again sought direction from Resendez regarding the course of investigation. Resendez this time enlisted the aid of Kenneth DeMore who, as the school district's Director of Employee Relations, usually handled teacher grievances and complaints. Morales first met with Mares to discuss the incident. Mares admitted that he had been alone in the classroom with Leticia and had placed his hand around her waist, but denied any further improper conduct. Morales and DeMore interviewed Leticia a few days later on February 4, 1985. Leticia told them that Mares had approached her from behind as she was drawing at the blackboard, wrapped his arm around her waist, and stuck his tongue in her ear.

This interview marked the end of the investigatory process. Testimony at trial disclosed the school officials' knowledge of the 1981 allegations against Mares, that Morales, the only person who questioned both Leticia and Mares, believed that Leticia was telling the truth, and that the administrators considered the alleged conduct to be actionable sexual abuse. Nonetheless, Morales, DeMore, and Resendez neither called the Department of Human Resources nor took any immediate remedial steps on their own. Rather, the school officials decided to "drop the matter" and merely include the incident in the customary evaluation of Mares' overall classroom performance. 3 All three officials stated that this abrupt conclusion of the investigation came at the request of Mrs. Pena, who, according to their testimony, made it clear that she wished to proceed no further.

Leticia Pena's allegations of sexual abuse had no discernible effect on Mares' standing at Ascarate Elementary School. On February 15, just two weeks after his alleged assault, Morales gave Mares what she described as a "good evaluation," rating his classroom performance just one point short of "exceeds expectations." After Mares filed a grievance challenging this evaluation as "unfair," Morales adjusted his score even higher in April. Mares capped an eventful spring later that month by being elected President of the Ascarate Elementary School PTA.

Mares' election came as a shock to Graciela Pena and her husband Fernando. Contrary to the account given by Morales, the Penas testified that they had neither failed to cooperate nor asked her to terminate the school district's investigation of Mares' assault on their daughter. While they may have expressed some misgivings about the repeated questioning of Leticia, the Penas were under the impression that the investigation would continue until the appropriate resolution was reached. Nor was the resolution of their complaint subject to doubt. Resendez and DeMore testified that Morales was the only school official to talk to Mrs. Pena regarding the incident. Mrs. Pena stated at trial, however, that Resendez had personally informed her that Mares would be brought to YISD's central office for a recorded hearing on the matter and would receive an official reprimand directing him to seek counseling and avoid any further one-on-one contact with students. Mares was also to be transferred to another school where he would be closely monitored to ensure that he complied with these terms. Mares' election as PTA President signalled to the Penas that these remedial steps had not been taken, that, far from being punished for his transgression, Mares had in fact been "rewarded."

The Penas were not without means to correct this perceived breach of trust, for Mares' election to the Ascarate PTA presidency coincided with Fernando Pena's own election to the YISD Board of Trustees. Upon taking office in May, Mr. Pena went to Principal Morales' office to determine whether the official reprimand promised his wife in February had been placed in Mares' file. After Pena was unable to locate the reprimand in the files at Ascarate, Morales told him that it had been forwarded to the central office. Pena then discovered that those files contained neither the reprimand nor any evidence of the investigation into Mares' sexual abuse of his daughter. It was at this point that Mr. Pena learned that, contrary to the assurances given to Mrs. Pena by Resendez, school officials had, as DeMore admitted at trial, simply "dropp[ed] the matter."

Mr. Pena then decided to take up the Mares incident directly with the Board. After documenting the sharp divergences between the actions promised by school officials and those that were taken, Pena called an emergency meeting of the Board of Trustees in late May. With the entire Board as well as Resendez, YISD Superintendent Jim Hensley, and Deputy Superintendent Jerry Barber present, Pena submitted documents detailing Mares' assault on Leticia and the administration's subsequent attempt to "cover up" the incident. Resendez responded to Pena's strong charges by offering his own account of the events surrounding the investigation. Resendez informed the Board that the district had determined that the allegations lacked substance and that the investigation had been closed at Mrs. Pena's request. Mr. Pena in...

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