Graham v. Friedlander and the Plight of Trial Judges

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| Jul 17, 2020 | Firm News |

In February, in Graham v. Friedlander, 334 Conn. 564 (2020), Connecticut’s Supreme Court considered the state’s power over poor teaching. In the same opinion it weighed judges’ authority to throw out parents’ claims. It found both surprisingly limited.

The plaintiffs in Graham v. Friedlander had taken Norwalk’s Board of Education to court for hurting their children. The Board had hired a special education teacher for them that turned out to be a fraud. The parents alleged that the teacher’s methods had damaged their children’s brains.

The trial judge did not believe this. Judge Provodator ruled that the parents could only ask for remedial teaching. He would have sent their complaint to one of the hearings the state runs to resolve disputes over services.

The Supreme Court reversed. In the early stage of a case, it wrote, as long as plaintiffs offer some evidence to back up their claim, a trial judge has no choice but to accept the claim as true. The Court recounted the parents’ expert’s opinion. It said that the Norwalk children had been at a susceptible stage in their development; the missed teaching had caused a “regression” in their “progress.” Although these words make it sound like their brains’ growth simply paused, the Court took them to mean that the children’s growth was stunted, would never catch up. If that was the case, they had suffered a permanent injury, and no amount of teaching would ever help them. Their complaint could stay in court, held the Court, where their parents could perhaps prove their claim and win damages.

Norwalk’s Board fell back on a second objection. In Connecticut, boards of education carry out some duties for the state and others for their town. Connecticut orders boards to offer special education. Norwalk argued that in hiring this teacher and offering her services, it acted as the state’s agent. Since nobody can sue the state or its agent without the state’s consent, which Connecticut hadn’t given, Norwalk argued that the parents could not take it to court.

Judge Provodator dismissed this objection as carefully as he had dismissed Norwalk’s first. After thoroughly reviewing earlier cases he decided the fraudulent teaching was a problem only for Norwalk’s taxpayers to solve. Their “department of human relations” had made the mistake, not Connecticut, and they would have to settle the matter out of their own pocket.

This time the appellate court agreed. The parents’ claim did not touch Connecticut’s overall interest in educational opportunity, it said. The people of the state had no interest in one city’s hire. On this point the Court’s opinion endorsed Judge Provodator’s “practical” answer.

Graham v. Friedlander makes one sympathize with trial judges. It was a hard case. In meeting Norwalk’s second objection Judge Provodator had looked for guidance from the Supreme Court. He found none, made his ruling, and won plaudits for his “practical” reasoning. In meeting the first objection he had reached what many would say was an equally “practical” result. Given how that turned out, he and trial judges everywhere will find it safer from now on, at least for disabled students, to credit even the most challenging claims of injury.