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Cormier v. City of Lynn

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Essex

February 27, 2018

ALYSSA CORMIER & another [1]
CITY OF LYNN & others.[2]

          Heard: November 9, 2017.

         Civil action commenced in the Superior Court Department on March 2, 2011.A motion to dismiss was heard by Robert N. Tochka, J.

         After review by the Appeals Court, the Supreme Judicial Court granted leave to obtain further appellate review.

          Douglas K. Sheff (Sara W. Khan, Frank J. Federico, Jr., & Donald R. Grady, Jr., also present) for the plaintiffs.

          James P. Lamanna, Assistant City Solicitor (George S. Markopoulos, Assistant City Solicitor, also present) for city of Lynn.

          Gary Buseck, Patience Crozier, & Joseph N. Schneiderman, for GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Gaziano, Lowy, & Budd, JJ.

          BUDD, J.

         Bullying is a persistent, pernicious problem in our schools -- it can cause emotional and, at times, physical harm. In this case, Matthew Mumbauer suffered both. Matthew was a public elementary school student in Lynn when he was pushed down a stairwell at school by a classmate. Matthew's fall led to a spinal injury, resulting in permanent paralysis. He and his parents, Alyssa Cormier and James Mumbauer (collectively, plaintiffs), brought claims against a number of defendants in connection with the incident and Matthew's subsequent medical care. A Superior Court judge allowed a motion to dismiss all claims against the city of Lynn, Lynn Public Schools (school district), and their public employees (collectively, public defendants).[3] The Appeals Court affirmed that decision in an unpublished memorandum and order issued pursuant to its rule 1:28. Cormier v. Lynn, 91 Mass.App.Ct. 1101 (2017) .

         We allowed the plaintiffs' motion for further appellate review, limited to whether the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (act), G. L. c. 258, § 10 (j), bars the plaintiffs from bringing claims against the public defendants in relation to this incident. Thus, the issue that we must decide is not whether the school was negligent for failing to act reasonably to prevent the bullying that led to Matthew's injuries; the complaint alleges that it was, and for purposes of this appeal, we accept that allegation as true. Rather, the issue on appeal is whether, under the act, the public defendants may be held liable for that negligence. We conclude that the act protects them from liability for such negligence.[4]


         The facts of this case, drawn from the complaint, are tragic. On March 10, 2008, then fourth grade student Matthew Mumbauer was pushed down a stairwell by a classmate while attending a public elementary school in Lynn. The incident occurred while the students were lining up at the beginning of the school day.

         By late morning and throughout the afternoon, Matthew complained to teachers and classmates of "tingling and numbness" in his extremities. His symptoms were not reported to the school nurse or any other medical professionals. By the end of the school day, Matthew reported feeling like his legs were "dead weight" and he needed assistance to walk out of the school.

         In the afternoon, Matthew's parents brought him to North Shore Medical Center (NSMC), where he was diagnosed with a sprain in his right foot and given pain medication. He stayed home from school the following day. On March 12, Matthew returned to NSMC because he was unable to move his hands or legs. Matthew was then transferred to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where he was diagnosed with an injury to his spinal column and spinal cord, which resulted in the onset of quadriplegia. He is permanently paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair.

         The plaintiffs' complaint alleges that, prior to being pushed down the stairs in March, 2008, Matthew was subject to constant bullying at school by a small group of students, including the classmate who pushed Matthew. Matthew's mother had reported acts of harassment levied against him on multiple occasions during the 2007-2008 school year to school officials. Matthew had also complained to teachers and administrators at the school numerous times about bullying and harassment. The plaintiffs contend that the school did not enforce its own antibullying policies.


         "We review the allowance of a motion to dismiss de novo." Curtis v. Herb Chambers 1-95, Inc., 458 Mass. 674, 676 (2011). "For the purposes of that review, we accept as true the facts alleged in the plaintiffs' complaint[] and any exhibits attached thereto, drawing all reasonable inferences in the plaintiffs' favor." R ...

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