California Court Of Appeal Finds District Did Not Have Mandatory Duty To Defend Former Student Athlete From Lawsuit Against Injured Referee

CATEGORY: Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: Mar 29, 2022

Vanndrya Srouy was a student at Crawford High School (Crawford) in the San Diego Unified School District (the District) and a member of Crawford’s varsity football team. During one of his football games, Srouy blocked an opposing player who then fell onto a football referee, John Herlich. After Srouy graduated from high school, Herlich filed suit against Srouy and the District claiming that he was injured when Srouy blocked the opponent. The District (as a co-defendant) rejected Srouy’s tender of defense in the Herlich lawsuit. A tender of defense is when one party is responsible for defending another party in a lawsuit and paying all the costs associated with that defense.

Srouy then filed a lawsuit against the District alleging the District acted wrongfully when it refused to defend him in the Herlich lawsuit, and sought to recover the legal fees and costs he incurred in defending himself from that case. Srouy alleged this duty arose under the free school guarantee and the equal protection clause of the California Constitution; title 5, section 350 of the California Code of Regulations; and Education Code Section 44808. Srouy alleged the District violated Education Code Section 44808 by failing to protect his safety and well-being in connection with the aftermath of the football game and by “failing to ensure the absence of financial injury to [Srouy] as a result of the Herlich lawsuit.” He also alleged that under article IX, section 5 of the California Constitution, the guarantee of a free school extends to ensuring a student does not incur legal fees and costs from a lawsuit arising from an extracurricular activity for which the student receives class credit. Title 5, section 350, of the California Code of Regulations states:  “A pupil enrolled in a school shall not be required to pay any fee, deposit, or other charges not specifically authorized by law.” Srouy claimed that the attorney fees and costs he incurred in defending against the Herlich lawsuit constituted a “charge not specifically authorized by law” that the District failed to prevent him from incurring.

The District challenged the legal sufficiency of the complaint, arguing that none of the provisions upon which Srouy relied imposed a mandatory duty on the District to prevent a student from incurring attorney fees and costs in the defense of a lawsuit.

The trial court agreed with the District and dismissed Srouy’s operative complaint. The court found Srouy had not succeeded in establishing that the District was under a mandatory duty to “protect or indemnify [him] from incurring attorney fees.”  The court reasoned that incurring legal fees was not the type of harm that Education Code Section 44808 was designed to prevent.  The court further found that while article IX, section 5 of the California Constitution, and title 5, section 350 of the California Code of Regulations prohibit schools from charging students fees to enroll or participate in educational extracurricular activities, they did not obligate schools to prevent students from being “required to pay [an] attorney for fees incurred in representing [the student] in litigation outside of school.”  Srouy appealed to the Court of Appeal.

On appeal, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment and concluded that the provisions Srouy relied upon did not impose a mandatory duty on the District to defend Srouy from the Herlich lawsuit.  The Court of Appeal rejected Srouy’s argument that Education Code Section 44808 imposed a mandatory duty on the District, reasoning that the provision was not intended to broaden the scope of school district liability as Srouy sought to do on appeal.  Additionally, the Court of Appeal held that the equal protection clause of the California Constitution does not afford litigants a right to recover individual monetary damages.  The Court of Appeal concluded its opinion by stating: “Although Srouy’s plight evokes our sympathy, our ability to respond is constrained by the law, and the allegations of this case do not afford a judicial solution.  We leave it to the Legislature to determine whether the needs of student-athletes in Srouy’s position are sufficiently addressed by current law, and if not, to craft an appropriate solution.”

Ultimately, the Court of Appeal agreed with the District and dismissed the case.

Srouy v. San Diego Unified Sch. Dist. (2022) __ Cal.App.4th __ [2022 WL 557183].

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