Court says teacher can’t sue school district after breaking up fight

A Minnesota teacher injured while trying to break up a student brawl can’t sue his school district or superintendents because the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act, as the exclusive remedy to the injuries suffered, bars him from suing his employer, according to a ruling issued Wednesday in the 8th U.S. District Court of Appeals in St. Louis, Missouri.

In December 2015, John Ekblad, while working as a teacher and lunchroom supervisor at Central Senior High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, intervened in a lunchroom fight and was assaulted by a student involved, suffered injuries of which his employer, Independent School District #625, covered under workers compensation, according to documents in John Ekblad v. Independent School District No. 625, Valeria Silva, and Theresa Battle.

Mr. Ekblad later filed a suit against the school district and its employees, alleging negligence and negligent supervision. He also filed claims against Valeria Silva, superintendent for the school district from 2009 through 2016, and Theresa Battle, assistant superintendent since July 2013, alleging a violation of a substantive due process right to a safe work environment, records state.

Parts of the suit focused on alleged racial undertones: “After the assault, the student who attacked Mr. Ekblad reportedly asked onlookers, “Did you see me slam that white-ass teacher?,” records state.

“Ekblad alleged that school administrators deliberately ignored student misconduct and created an environment that became increasingly dangerous to students and teachers,” records state, adding that the teacher submitted teachers’ testimonies that “school administrators, aware of previous racial disparity in discipline rates, intentionally created a race-conscious policy for student discipline.”

“Under the policy, minority students were treated leniently, even in cases involving violence, which had the desired result of decreasing reportable discipline disparity,” records state. “The teachers testified that student misbehavior increased when students realized they would not be disciplined for misconduct — even violent misconduct. Ekblad claims that his assault was the direct result of school administration policy regarding minority student misconduct.”

The United States District Court for the District of Minnesota in Minneapolis concluded that Mr. Ekblad’s negligence claims were preempted by the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act and that he did not adequately support his claims that exceptions listed in the law would permit him to sue his employer outside of workers comp, according to documents.

The three-judge appeals panel affirmed the earlier ruling, stating in Wednesday’s ruling that Mr. Ekblad’s suit did not meet the criteria for filing outside of the workers comp claim: “The (Workers’ Compensation Act) has three relevant exceptions to the exclusive remedy provision: the assault exception, the intentional act exception, and the co-employee liability exception. None are applicable in this case.”

“The assault exception excludes injuries resulting from an attempt ‘to injure the employee because of personal reasons,’” of which the appeals court found to be of fact in the case, as Mr. Ekblad was assaulted because he was a teacher, and not because he was white, the ruling states: “Ekblad’s attacker called him ‘white-ass,’ but he also called him a teacher, and the context makes clear that Ekblad’s employment played a causal role in the assault.”

The intentional act exception did not apply, according to the ruling, which states that “while Ekblad alleges that his supervisors’ policies negligently resulted in a workplace environment where student violence was prevalent, the evidence does not suggest that they ‘consciously and deliberately’ intended to injure him.”

And the co-employee exception applies “when a plaintiff can show: 1) that a co-employee had a personal duty toward the employee, the breach of which resulted in the employee’s injury, 2) that the activity causing the injury was not part of the co-employee’s general administrative responsibilities, and 3) that the co-employee was grossly negligent in performing that personal duty” — none of which applied to Mr. Ekblad’s experience, the ruling states.