(CN) - Interviews and notes gathered by attorneys investigating years of sexual abuse by an Illinois music teacher are protected by the attorney-client privilege, the 7th Circuit ruled.
The Chicago-based appellate panel reversed a district court ruling ordering the law firm of Sidley Austin to turn over the documents to one of the public school teacher's victims for use in a civil suit against the South Berwyn School District in Berwyn, Ill.
While Sidley Austin did not represent the school district at trail, it was hired in 2005 to investigate school officials' response to the allegations and provide legal services after "public outcry" and a civil lawsuit claimed officials knew about the sexual abuse all along but did nothing.
The district court reasoned that the documents, which included notes and memos related to interviews with principals, social workers, administrative employees, members of the school board and others, were not protected because they were the result of investigative work only.
The three-judge appellate panel disagreed, finding that the documents fall well within the attorney-client privilege and the work-product doctrine.
Writing for the circuit court, Judge Diane Sykes pointed to an "engagement letter" between Sidley Austin and the school board. The letter reveals that the district hired the firm to "investigate the response of the school administration to allegations of sexual abuse of students" and to "provide legal services in connection with the specific representation," according to the ruling.
Both the U.S. Supreme Court and other circuits have "concluded that when an attorney conducts a factual investigation in connection with the provision of legal services, any notes or memoranda documenting client interviews or other client communications in the course of the investigation are fully protected by the attorney-client privilege," Sykes wrote. "The engagement letter spells out that the board retained Sidley to provide legal services in connection with developing [a] response to ... sexual abuse of students.
The music teacher, Robert Sperlik, eventually confessed that he had "repeatedly" sexually abused "numerous" female students during private music lessons. He said the abuse began in 1998 and continued until his arrest in 2005.
"Sperlik would tie up or bind the girls with duct tape during private lessons and then sexually molest them," according to the ruling.
Citing the shocking nature of the crimes, which involved female students between the ages of 9 and 12, the plaintiff in the civil case against the district claimed that the firm's refusal to turn over the documents was "contrary to the public interest."
The appellate panel also disagreed with that argument, however.
"Although the allegations are very serious and there are important public as well as private interests at stake, we think the policies underlying the attorney-client privilege have their normal application," Sykes wrote. "The public interest is best served when agencies of the government have access to the confidential advice of counsel regarding the legal consequences of their past and present activities and how to conform their future operations to the requirements of the law."
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