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Terrylene Sacchetti, et. al. v. Gallaudet University, et. al.

August 5, 2020

The United States District Court for the District of Columbia held that a university owed no duty to protect a student from his own self-inflicted harm, but that the university may be held liable for a false arrest for calling the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department (“MPD”) in response to the student’s behavioral issues.  The Court further held that the private university could not be held liable under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), but the decedent’s parents could proceed on such claims against the District of Columbia (“District”) for the MPD’s alleged actions in failing to reasonably accommodate the decedent.

In 2013, Plaintiffs’ son, Gianni Manganelli, was accepted into Gallaudet University.  Due to the fact that Gianni was deaf and suffered from seizures, Plaintiffs engaged in conversations with Gallaudet’s Mental Health Center, housing department, and academic advisor department regarding Gallaudet’s ability to address their son’s health needs.  Gallaudet assured Plaintiffs that it was adequately equipped to assist Gianni if necessary.  Relying on these representations, Plaintiffs and Gianni relocated to the Washington, D.C. area so that Gianni could attend Gallaudet.

Gianni began to suffer mental health issues almost immediately.  In August of 2013, he was arrested at the United States Capitol building after approaching a member of the Capitol Police and demanding to speak with Congress.  When he was returned to Gallaudet, campus police were called to his dorm room and reported that Gianni was “disproportionately irate’” regarding pain in his wrists from being placed in handcuffs.  Although Gallaudet’s Mental Health Center did meet with Gianni several times over the next few weeks, Gianni soon terminated the meetings.

In October 2013, several of Gianni’s instructors reported that he was acting in a physically aggressive and bizarre manner. These reports continued until February 2014, but Gianni’s parents were not notified of his behavior, and Gallaudet took no action with regards to further mental treatment. On March 28, 2014, Gianni had a confrontation with his roommate, which necessitated Gallaudet’s police force to detain Gianni and contact the MPD. The MPD officers arrested Gianni and detained him for approximately twenty-four (24) hours.  In that time frame, the MPD did not provide Gianni with an interpreter or mental health services.  After he was released, Gianni contacted his mother, who picked him up and observed further odd behavior.  Tragically, later that day, Gianni killed himself.

Plaintiffs filed an action Gallaudet and the District of Columbia, alleging wrongful death, survival, negligent infliction of emotional distress, false arrest, and violations of the ADA.  Each defendant moved to dismiss Plaintiffs’ Complaint.

The Court granted in part, and denied in part, Defendants’ motions.  The causes of action for wrongful death and survival were predicated on the allegation that Gallaudet breached a duty of care it owed as a result of a special relationship with Gianni.  Specifically, Plaintiffs alleged that Gallaudet represented to them that it was adequately equipped to serve Gianni’s health needs, and owed Gianni a duty to do so as a result of its representations.  Although courts in some jurisdictions had applied this principle in holding that educational institutions owe a duty of care to protect students from self-inflicted harm, the Court declined to find such a duty in this case for two reasons.  First, it noted that the Complaint alleged that Gallaudet did provide mental health treatment to Gianni, but Gianni refused further treatment.  As a result, Gallaudet did not increase the risk of harm to Gianni, and Gianni did not rely, to his detriment, on any services provided and withdrawn by the school. Second, the Complaint did not allege that Gallaudet knew of Gianni’s suicidal ideations. However odd Gianni’s behavior, he never expressed suicidal thoughts to another individual.  The Court dismissed Plaintiffs’ wrongful death and survival claims,  as well as the claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress.

The District’s Motion to Dismiss the claims of false arrest and violation of the ADA were denied by the Court. The Court noted that while there was conflicting authority as to what responsibilities police officers have to provide mentally ill individuals with a reasonable accommodation, there remained factual issues as to whether the officers knew that Gianni was mentally ill and/or disabled, whether Gianni informed the officers of that fact, and whether Gianni was even capable of doing so (as his hands were handcuffed behind his back and he was thus unable to communicate using sign language). 

Turning to Plaintiffs’ ADA claim against Gallaudet, the Court stated that the ADA applies only to “public entit[ies],” i.e., “instrumentalit[ies] of a State or States or local government.” 42 U.S.C. § 12132. Although Gallaudet is a federally chartered institution, the Court had previously held that such institutions are nevertheless not public entities within the meaning of the ADA.