REPORT 200: PUPIL CONTRACTS AND HANDBOOKS

[This is 200th report issued on this website.  There does not seem to be an abatement of church lawsuits looming in the future.]

Most church schools have adopted handbooks that state the school’s policies, disciplinary and otherwise. Typically, the pupil’s parents, as well as the pupil, sign an acknowledgement agreement to conform. The acknowledgement usually warns that suspension and expulsion are real risks of violations. While the pupil cannot, as a minor, be bound contractually, the parents can be in most jurisdictions.

In St. Brendan High School, Inc. v Neff, Slip Op. (FL App 3d, 2019) the appellate court refused to prohibit the trial court from proceeding on the parents’ claim that expulsion violated the contract entered into upon enrollment. The school expelled the student because on her behalf the parents sued the school because the student was injured during “community service” at a location approved by the school. The handbook expressly prohibited lawsuits against the school and warned that expulsion would result. The parents and the student had previously signed the acknowledgement of the handbook containing the prohibition. The appellate court found that the parents’ lawsuit claims “fall on the secular / contractual side” and not in contravention of Florida’s interpretation of the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. Because such a writ is an “extraordinary remedy” not often granted, the outcome of the lawsuit remained uncertain.

Because the opinion reported did not quote the handbook in detail, whether the policy prohibiting lawsuits against the school was based on religious doctrine, such as Matthew 18, for example, or denominational governance documents was not discernible. Such a prohibition would need to be based on religious doctrine in order to qualify for Ecclesiastical Abstention. Whether the handbook prohibition and the signed acknowledgment under Florida law would be a form of waiver or contractual limitation on litigation choices, like an arbitration clause, could not be gleaned from the opinion. Waiver language might be more effective than prohibition language in some jurisdictions.

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