Massachusetts Appeals Court Clarifies The Correct Recipient of a Presentment Letter for Claims Against a Public School Under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act

On August 10, 2022, the Massachusetts Appeals Court issued a decision in John Doe v. Cambridge Public Schools, 21-P-877, dismissing an elementary school student’s complaint of negligent infliction of emotional distress because the student failed to meet the presentment requirement of the Massachusetts Tort Claim Act (the MTCA), G.L. c. 258, § 4, when he mailed a presentment letter to the school’s superintendent. The MTCA has a requirement that any tort claimed against a public employer must be presented to the employer’s “executive officer” before being brought in court. The Court’s decision concluded that for public school districts, the superintendent is not necessarily the correct “executive officer” for this purpose.

Doe involved the suspension of an elementary school student. In December of 2017, female students complained that certain unnamed male students were sharing photographs of naked women on their cellphones after school, while waiting for the bus. The plaintiff in Doe was singled out by the principal as the student responsible and was suspended even after the principal learned that the student was not in school on the day of the alleged incident and was not allowed to bring a cellphone to school. The school scheduled a readmission hearing for the student in early January 2018, but the meeting had to be rescheduled for the following day because the student was unable to leave his house due to extreme nervousness and fear of further disciplinary action. Following the suspension, the student sent a letter presenting a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress under the MTCA to the superintendent and then brought a claim against the school district in state court.  The school district sought to dismiss the complaint based on improper presentment, which the Superior Court denied, resulting in the school district filing the instant appeal.

In its decision, the Appeals Court reasoned that the school district is not a legal entity wholly separate from the city. As such, the MTCA required the student to present his claim to the “executive officer” of the city, rather than the school. In the instant case, the proper recipient of the presentment letter would have been the mayor. Because the presentment letter was addressed to the improper recipient, the Appeals Court reversed the Superior Court order, and thereafter ordered the student’s claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress be dismissed.

This decision expands a procedural obstacle placed in front of those wishing to bring tort claims under the MTCA against public schools. Following the Doe decision, tort claims brought against public schools may be dismissed if they have not already been presented to the municipality’s mayor, manager, or another individual designated as executive in the city or town charter. While this decision could be appealed further to the Supreme Judicial Court, it has an immediate impact on MTCA claims against public schools.

If you have any questions about the application of this update, please contact us. We are pleased to assist public employers in the defense of MTCA claims.

This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.