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On Monday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a precedential decision in Nguyen v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology et al. (SJC-12329), which addresses the complicated issue of higher education institutions’ responsibility to protect students at risk of suicide.

The plaintiff sued MIT and several professors and deans for the wrongful death of his son, who committed suicide as an MIT graduate student, alleging that MIT was negligent in not preventing his son’s suicide. The case presented a somewhat novel question regarding the obligations of a university to intervene where a student appears or is known to be a suicide risk. The SJC held that in certain circumstances, there may be “a special relationship and a corresponding duty to take reasonable measures to prevent suicide” between a university and its student. However, in this case, there was no such duty, and the court affirmed the lower court’s grant of judgment as a matter of law in favor of MIT.

The decision sets a new standard for universities in handling at-risk students.  Although the SJC acknowledged that, as a general rule, there is no duty to prevent another from committing suicide, it concluded that in some circumstances, a special relationship may impose affirmative duties of suicide prevention. Rejecting the past notion of schools as “in loco parentis,” the SJC reasoned that universities “are not responsible for monitoring and controlling all aspects of their students’ lives,” and acknowledged that students have an expectation of and right to privacy regarding their mental health records and personal mental health decisions. Nonetheless, universities are “clearly not bystanders or strangers in regards to their students,” and have deep involvement in all aspects of a student’s life, which may give rise to an affirmative duty of suicide prevention.

Based on this reasoning, the SJC held that a university has a special relationship with a student and a corresponding duty to take reasonable measures to prevent his or her suicide where the university “has actual knowledge of a student’s suicide attempt that occurred while enrolled at the university or recently before matriculation, or of a student’s stated plans or intentions to commit suicide.” This duty “hinges on foreseeability” and actual knowledge. In these circumstances, the university has a duty to take “reasonable measures under the circumstances to protect the student from self-harm.” 

In its opinion, the SJC provided some guidance on what “reasonable measures” means:

  • For universities that have a suicide prevention protocol, reasonable measures “will include initiating [the university’s] suicide prevention protocol.”
  • For universities that do not have such a protocol, “the university employee who learns of the student’s suicide attempt or stated plans or intentions to commit suicide” must “contact the appropriate officials at the university empowered to assist the student in obtaining clinical care from medical professionals or, if the student refuses such care, to notify the student’s emergency contact.”
  • If the situation is deemed an “emergency,” reasonable measures include “contacting police, fire, or emergency medical personnel.”

The court implied that universities have no duty to affirmatively prevent suicide; instead, the limited duty extends only to taking “the reasonable measures under the circumstances presented,” and is “time-bound” in the sense that no duty is present if a medical professional has determined that a student is no longer a suicide risk.

This standard leaves open several questions for higher education institutions in interpreting the scope of their duty, including:

  • How far back does “recently before matriculation” go?
  • Should (and may) higher education institutions inquire about students’ prior mental health issues of students directly, or of their prior educational institutions?
  • When will a student no longer be considered a suicide risk after a prior suicide attempt or plan?

Moving forward, the lower courts in Massachusetts may be asked to answer some of these questions to provide further clarity on the scope of higher education institutions’ duties.

Attorneys from Mintz Levin’s Education Industry Group are available to help universities assess their policies and protocols to ensure compliance with this new standard and to address a host of other legal challenges facing educational institutions. For assistance, please contact the author or another professional in our Education Industry Group.

Continue Reading Massachusetts SJC Recognizes Limited Affirmative Duty of Universities to Take Suicide Prevention Measures for Known-Risk Students

Our colleague Patricia Moran wrote an excellent post on our sister blog, Employment Matters. Moran notes that employers should consider changes to their compensation structures that will affect their employee benefit plans. The post highlights several employee benefits issues that employers involved at educational institutions should consider as the December 1 deadline approaches. To read more about these new rules, click here. You can also read about the overtime rules’ impact on educational institutions here.

Please join us on September 29th at 1 pm ET as we cover the recently proposed 457(f) regulations. This one-hour webinar will offer employers more than just a summary of the rule. It will also offer unique insights on the rule’s impact, cover historical context, and go over the proposed regulations in further depth.

If you have any questions you would like us to address, please email them to me at ajbianchi@mintz.com in advance of the webinar.

We hope you can join us! Register here.

With stunning speed, the balance of power between collegiate athletes and the institutions they play for has changed.  Recent events at the University of Missouri may feel like a tectonic shift but the preceding tremors had been evident for some time.  In this new normal of student-athlete coordinated action, universities will need to be prepared to swiftly address legal, operational, health and welfare, and fiscal concerns which affect student-athletes.

Two years ago (and in a sign of things to come), a group of football players at a Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) institution decided they reached their breaking point.  Despite a series of complaints to their university administration, the underlying feeling was concerns were not being addressed.  In this instance, the institution was Grambling State University and the football team was upset with what they viewed as unhealthy training conditions, substandard facilities and poor travel arrangements which exhausted the team before games.  The players also were unhappy about the termination of then-head football coach Doug Williams and the failure to address his transition with the team. Continue Reading Preparing for a New World of Collective Action by Student-Athletes

Our colleague Ray Cotton was recently recognized by Best Lawyers in America as one of the country’s top peer-selected lawyers in Education Law.  Best Lawyers is considered the oldest and most highly-respected peer review guide to the legal profession worldwide.  Mintz Levin is proud to be represented by such an outstanding individual and his professional contributions to the field of Education Law.

Congratulations Ray!

Our colleague Tyrone Thomas recently posted in Employment Matters regarding the NRLB’s decision to decline to assert jurisdiction in ruling on the petition of Northwestern University’s scholarship football players to unionize.  Tyrone analyzes how the NRLB reached its decision and whether or not a different result would have occurred if the Big Ten had not recently enacted measure to provide athletic aid for the full cost of attendance and extra benefits for scholarship athletes. Continue Reading NLRB Calls Out the Punt Team and Declines Jurisdiction Over Northwestern University Football Players

Mintz Levin’s Patricia Moran recently completed the final installment of “Student Employees and the Affordable Care Act”, an insightful, four-part series discussing the ACA and issues relevant to the variety of student employee positions available at today’s educational institutions.  To view each installment, follow the links to Employment Matters below:

Part 1: Can we exclude student workers from our health plan?

Part 2: Can an offer of student coverage count as an applicable large employer’s “offer” of coverage?

Part 3: Can we subsidize student health insurance?

Part 4: If students are employees, how are their hours counted?