(CN) — An Iowa school district is not liable for allegedly ignoring reports of two teachers having sex with a high schooler, though both were convicted of doing so, the state's appeals court ruled.
While a junior at the Davis County, Iowa Community School District in spring 2008, Sarah Lindemulder began a sexual relationship with assistant athletics coach Patrick Nicoletto.
Lindemulder began another sexual relationship with a math teacher, Ryan Grinstead, in the fall of her senior year, both on school grounds and off.
A year after Sarah ended her relationship with Grinstead in May 2010, her sister allegedly told their mother about the relationship, and the matter was reported to the police.
Both Nicoletto and Grinstead were later convicted of sexual exploitation by a "school employee," but Nicoletto's conviction was reversed, as he did not qualify as an employee.
Lindemulder and her parentssued the school district, Nicoletto, and Grinstead in Wapello County Court in December 2012, alleging liability for civil damages; assault and battery; lascivious conduct with a minor; loss of consortium; and violating a duty to protect, fiduciary duty, the mandatory reporting requirements, and Title IX.
Though a parent and a coach told Principal Jeffry Graves that there was a rumor Sarah had an inappropriate relationship with Nicoletto, the principal believed the pair's denials of any such relationship, according to the complaint.
Plus, both Principal Graves and the school counselor allegedly believed Sarah when she denied having a relationship with Grinstead, after the superintendent reported a rumor about it.
After the track coach saw Sarah go to the third floor, where Grinstead's classroom was located, during lunch, someone at a staff meeting said she should not do so, the complaint states.
The coach later confronted Grinstead and told the principal about an angry, whispered exchange he observed between Sarah and Grinstead in the hallway of the hotel where they stayed for the state track meet during her senior year, according to the complaint.
Sarah later testified that a teacher saw her and Grinstead holding hands and kissing, and that a basketball coach saw her car near Grinstead's apartment after a game.
Judge Lucy Gamon dismissed all claims against the school district.
The Lindemulders appealed, but the Iowa Appeals Court affirmed the lower court's ruling Friday.
Sarah "specifically denied any relationship with Grinstead or Nicoletto when questioned by Principal Graves," Judge Gayle Vogel wrote for the three-judge panel. "The evidence in the record shows the only information Principal Graves had was a rumor Sarah and Grinstead were seen at a movie together, Sarah was permitted to ride in a car with Grinstead to get a sandwich during the state track meet and an accident occurred, Sarah and Grinstead had an angry whispered exchange in the hallway of the hotel at the state track meet, and Husted felt uneasy when he confronted Grinstead about the whispered exchange. We agree with the district court that this evidence alone is not sufficient for a reasonable juror to conclude the school district had actual notice of the sexual abuse or harassment of Sarah at the hands of Nicoletto and Grinstead."
The judge later added that "the record supports the conclusion that the school district fulfilled its obligation to ensure all employees obtained the necessary education on the mandatory reporting requirements and had in place an employee policy for reporting child abuse. Thus, assuming without deciding the information the individual teachers or coaches had in this case triggered their mandatory duty to report the information to the appropriate authorities, the individuals' actions, or rather their inaction, cannot be imputed to the School District through vicarious liability."
The Lindemulders' attorney, Steven Gardner of Denefe, Gardner & Zingg in Ottumwa, Iowa, and the district's attorneys, Gayla Harrison and Nicholas Maxwell, of Harrison, Moreland, Webber & Simplot in Ottumwa, did not respond to requests for comment.
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