New Cases and Developments

NACUA's Legal Resources staff summarizes current higher education cases and developments and provides the full text of selected cases to members. New cases and developments are archived here for up to 12 months.  Cases provided by Fastcase, Inc.

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Distressed & Suicidal Students

Nguyen v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, et al. (Mass. 2018)

Order affirming the superior court’s order granting-in-part and denying-in-part Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff, the father of a graduate student (Nguyen) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), alleged that MIT owed Nguyen a duty to prevent his suicide, negligently breached this duty, and breached its contract to provide certain mental health support services to Nguyen. The court held that “[w]here a university has actual knowledge of a student’s suicide attempt that occurred while enrolled at the university or recently before matriculation, or of a student’s stated plans or intentions to commit suicide, the university has a duty to take reasonable measures under the circumstances to protect the student from self-harm.” The court reasoned that this limited duty “respects the privacy and autonomy of adult students […] recognizes that nonclinicians cannot be expected to probe or discern suicidal intentions and that are not expressly evident […] acknowledges the scope of the suicide risk on campus and seeks to impose realistic duties and responsibilities on the universities [… and] is consistent with the modern university relationship with its students, which is no longer in loco parentis but rather provides for the students' independence and self-determination.” The court opined that reasonable measures to satisfy the limited and time-bound duty included initiating a suicide prevention protocol, notifying a student’s emergency contact, or contacting emergency personnel when necessary. Looking to the case at hand, the court found that the facts did not amount to a special relationship and conversely, if a duty did apply, MIT did not breach it as a matter of law. The court noted that Nguyen was an adult graduate student who lived off-campus and whose prior suicide attempts occurred over a year before he attended MIT.  Moreover, Nguyen did not communicate a plan or intention to commit suicide to any MIT employees and refused encouragement to seek professional help at MIT. The court further found that MIT did not voluntarily assume a duty of care by providing free mental health services because there was no evidence that Nguyen relied on the services – he instead rejected them and sought care from independent outside professionals – or that the services increased his risk of suicide. Plaintiff’s breach of contract claim failed for lack of an enforceable contract between Nguyen and MIT mental health support services. Lastly, the superior court properly denied summary judgment on Plaintiff’s related workers’ compensation claim because material disputed facts remained as to whether Nguyen’s employment status at MIT.

Risk Management; Compliance & Risk Management; Distressed & Suicidal Students; Campus Police, Safety & Crisis Management

Regents of the University of California, et al. v. Superior Court of L.A. Cnty. (Cal. March 22, 2018)

Opinion reversing the decision of the Court of Appeal and remanding the case for further proceedings. Respondent represents Katherine Rosen, a student of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) who was stabbed during a chemistry lab by a student who had experienced auditory hallucinations and was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. At issue was whether UCLA owed a duty of care to protect Rosen from harm. Answering this inquiry in the affirmative, the court recognized that a “special relationship” existed between a university and its students, which carries a duty to protect students from foreseeable acts of violence during curricular activities. The court identified two categories of “factors that may, on balance, justify excusing or limiting defendant’s duty of care”:  (1) factors related to “foreseeability and the related concepts of certainty and the connection between plaintiff and defendant”  and (2) public policy concerns such as moral blame, failure to prevent future harm, burden, and insurance availability.  As to foreseeability, the court opined that violence against students on-campus or during curricular activities was a foreseeable occurrence “that colleges have been equipping themselves to address for at least the past decade,” particularly in the aftermath of the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech.  On remand, the court must determine whether UCLA negligently breached its duty to Rosen and whether various immunity statutes shielded Petitioners from liability.

Distressed & Suicidal Students; Campus Police, Safety & Crisis Management

Principles for Students Who Pose a Risk of Self-Harm (Feb. 12, 2018)

Principles for Students Who Pose a Risk of Self-Harm compiled by the National Association of College and University Attorneys (NACUA).  These principles are derived from Acting Assistant Secretary of Education  Candice Jackson’s remarks during NACUA’s January 26, 2018 Briefing on “Students Who Pose a Threat of Self-Harm:  What Can Institutions Do?”  The principles describe lawful practices, consistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, that institutions may adopt to assist students who pose a risk of self harm.  The principles emphasize individualized assessments and fair processes, while allowing institutions to execute behavior contracts, review medical information, and utilize involuntary separations as a last resort.  A complimentary recording of the Briefing is available to NACUA members in NACUA’s Online Learning Center.