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University Owed No Duty to Protect Decedent from Self-Inflicted Harm, but May be Held Liable for False Arrest

Terrylene Sacchetti, et al. v. Gallaudet University, et al.
(April 20, 2016) United States District Court for the District of Columbia

by Matthew J. McCloskey, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at: https://ecf.dcd.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/show_public_doc?2015cv0455-30

In a recent opinion, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia held that a university owed no duty, under the circumstances of the case, to protect a student from his own self-inflicted harm, but that the university may be held liable for false arrest for calling the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department (“MPD”) in response to the student’s behavioral issues. Furthermore, although the Court held that the private university could not be held liable under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), it held that the decedent’s parents could proceed on such claims against the District of Columbia due to the MPD’s alleged actions in wrongfully arresting and failing to reasonably accommodate the decedent.

In 2013, Plaintiffs’ son, Gianni Manganelli, was accepted into Gallaudet University. Due to the fact that Gianni was deaf and suffered from seizures, Plaintiffs engaged in conversations with Gallaudet’s Mental Health Center, housing department, and academic advisor department regarding Gallaudet’s ability to address their son’s health needs. Gallaudet allegedly assured Plaintiffs that it was adequately equipped to assist Gianni if necessary. Relying on these representations, Plaintiffs and Gianni relocated to the Washington, D.C. area so that Gianni could attend Gallaudet.

Unfortunately, Gianni began to suffer mental health issues almost immediately. In August of 2013, he was arrested at the United States Capitol building after approaching a member of the Capitol Police and demanding to speak with Congress. When he was returned to Gallaudet, campus police were called to his dorm room and reported that Gianni was “disproportionately ‘irate’” regarding pain in his wrists caused by being placed in handcuffs. Although Gallaudet’s Mental Health Center did meet with Gianni several times over the next few weeks, Gianni soon terminated the meetings.

In October 2013, several of Gianni’s instructors reported that he acted in a physically aggressive and bizarre manner. These reports continued until February or March 2014, and Plaintiff’s mental state appeared to deteriorate during that period of time. Plaintiffs were not notified of these reports, and Gallaudet did not take any action to provide Gianni with further treatment. Gianni’s behavior ultimately led to a confrontation with his roommate on March 28, 2014 in which Gianni once again exhibited odd behavior. As a result of the confrontation, Gallaudet’s police force detained Gianni and called the MPD. After observing Gianni staring blankly and refusing to respond to any questions, the MPD officers arrested Gianni and detained him for approximately twenty-four (24) hours. In that time frame, the MPD did not provide Gianni with any mental health treatment or an interpreter. After he was released, Gianni contacted his mother, who picked him up and observed further odd behavior. Tragically, later that day, Gianni killed himself.

Plaintiffs subsequently filed a lawsuit against Gallaudet and the District of Columbia, setting forth causes of action for wrongful death, survival, negligent infliction of emotional distress, false arrest, and violations of the ADA. Each defendant moved to dismiss Plaintiffs’ Complaint.

Judge Reggie B. Walton, writing for the Court, granted, in part, and denied, in part, Defendants’ motions. Addressing first Plaintiffs’ causes of action for wrongful death and survival, the
Court noted that these claims were predicated on the allegation that Gallaudet breached a duty of care it owed as a result of a special relationship with Gianni. Specifically, Plaintiffs alleged that Gallaudet represented to them that it was adequately equipped to serve Gianni’s health needs, and owed Gianni a duty to do so as a result of its representations. Although courts in some jurisdictions had applied this principle in holding that educational institutions owe a duty of care to protect students from self-inflicted harm, the Court declined to find such a duty in this case for two reasons. First, it noted that the Complaint alleged that Gallaudet did provide mental health treatment to Gianni, but Gianni refused further treatment. As a result, Gallaudet did not increase the risk of harm to Gianni, and Gianni did not rely to his detriment on any services provided and withdrawn by the school. Second, the Complaint did not allege that Gallaudet knew of Gianni’s suicidal ideations. However odd Gianni’s behavior, he never expressed suicidal thoughts to another individual. As a result, the Court dismissed Plaintiffs’ wrongful death and survival claims. Furthermore, because Plaintiffs’ cause of action for negligent infliction of emotional distress was predicated on the same alleged breach of duty, the Court dismissed that claim as well.

Regarding Plaintiffs’ claims for false arrest, the Court noted that Plaintiffs alleged that the MPD and Gallaudet Police lacked probable cause to arrest Gianni because he only stared blankly at them. Defendants, however, produced a police report from the MPD which contradicted Plaintiffs’ allegations. Because the presentation of this additional evidence converted Defendants’ motions into motions for summary judgment, the Court concluded that there was a dispute of material fact as to Plaintiff’s conduct prior to his arrest. Accordingly, the Court denied Defendants’ motions to dismiss the false arrest claims.

Turning to Plaintiffs’ ADA claim against Gallaudet, the Court stated that the ADA applies only to “public entit[ies],” i.e., “instrumentalit[ies] of a State or States or local government.” 42 U.S.C. § 12132. Although Gallaudet is a federally chartered institution, the Court had previously held that such institutions are nevertheless not public entities within the meaning of the ADA. Consonant with its prior ruling, the Court held that the ADA did not apply to Gallaudet.

As to Plaintiffs’ ADA claim against the District of Columbia, however, the Court reached the opposite conclusion. First, to the extent that Plaintiffs alleged the MPD violated the ADA by wrongfully arresting Gianni, the Court rejected the District’s argument that the police report sufficed to defeat Plaintiffs’ claim. Just as with its treatment of the District’s motion to dismiss the false arrest claim, the Court considered the District’s motion a motion for summary judgment and denied it due to a dispute of material fact.

Second, although there was a degree of conflicting authority as to what responsibilities police officers have to provide mentally ill individual with a reasonable accommodation, the Court believed that Plaintiffs had nevertheless stated a plausible claim that the MPD denied Gianni a reasonable accommodation. Specifically, the Court noted that there were factual issues as to whether the officers knew Gianni was mentally ill and/or disabled, whether Gianni informed the officers of that fact, and whether Gianni was even capable of doing so (as his hands were handcuffed behind his back and he was thus unable to communicate using sign language).

The Court, however, rejected Plaintiff’s argument that the District failed to adequately train its officers to deal with mentally ill individuals. As an initial matter, it was unclear as to whether such an allegation was sufficient to sustain a claim for an ADA violation. However, even if it were, Plaintiffs had alleged only conclusory allegations in this regard, not specific facts regarding the District’s conduct. As a result, the Court declined to let Plaintiffs proceed under this theory. Nevertheless, because Plaintiffs had set forth other valid theories of recovery under the ADA, the Court denied the District’s motion to dismiss Plaintiffs’ ADA claim against the District.


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