In an unpublished decision in the matter of G.F.B., et al. v. Saint James School, et al., A-1325-17T4 (N.J. App. Div. Dec. 24, 2019), New Jersey’s Appellate Division affirmed a trial court’s dismissal of a ten-count lawsuit against a Roman Catholic school, and its employees. The suit alleged, on behalf of a former student of the Saint James School, as well as her parents, that she had been bullied and/or discriminated against on a repeated basis while a student at the school, between 2008 and 2015.
The school is a Roman Catholic institution, with a mission statement “to provide a quality Catholic education in a safe, diverse, and nurturing environment.” G.F.B. was initially enrolled in the school’s non-Catholic curriculum, because her mother was a Muslim and her father a non-practicing Catholic. According to the pleadings, G.F.B. was the subject of bullying and/or verbal harassment in the second grade, fourth grade, fifth grade, and sixth grade while at the school, and identified at least one incident from each such year as evidence for this claim.
Upon motion practice, the trial court dismissed all ten counts of the complaint. The appellate court did not discuss the arguments pertaining to each count in detail, finding that certain of the arguments did not merit discussion in a written opinion, but did provide certain restatements of New Jersey law that are illustrative. For instance, the Appellate Division reaffirmed that New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, also known as New Jersey’s “HIB” (or harassment, intimidation, and bullying) statute, was not applicable to the Diocese of Metuchen, which operated Saint James School, because it was not a public school district.
In addition, the Appellate Division affirmed the dismissal of all negligence claims under New Jersey’s Charitable Immunity Act. On appeal, Plaintiffs conceded that claims of simple negligence against the Saint James School, the Diocese of Metuchen, and its employees would be barred under the Act, but that claims of gross negligence, or of intentional and willful acts of discrimination, were not barred under the Act. The Appellate Division found that the record was bereft of evidence upon which a reasonable jury could conclude that any defendant acted in this capacity. Indeed, each claim of harassment and/or bullying noted above was responded to by the defendants in a prompt manner, although not always to the liking of Plaintiffs. The Court found that “defendants immediately responded to G.F.B.’s limited, separate, and isolated reports of harassment and bullying by her very young classmates over the seven years she attended the school, and they took action to ensure the involved classmates did not repeat their behavior.”
For more information on private school liability in New Jersey, or to discuss this case and its implications, please contact MKC&I’s Tom Emala at (973) 822-1110 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.