(CN) – The 7th Circuit ruled for three high-school administrators and a police officer accused of conducting a flawed investigation of a rumored sexual relationship between a biology teacher and a 15-year-old student.
Rumors circulated in 2004 that Gina Purvis, then a biology teacher at Hall High School in Spring Valley, Ill., was having sex with one of her students.
Purvis said Principal Patricia Lunn and Dean Gary Vicini acted on the whispers by launching an investigation that led to the teacher’s arrest. But Purvis claimed the investigation was deeply flawed, because there was an obvious conflict of interest: Vicini had been accused of sexual harassment the previous year, and he knew that Purvis was the one who reported him.
Nonetheless, Lunn allowed Vicini to play a key role in the investigation, Purvis claimed, and the dean pressured the student into falsely confessing to the alleged affair.
Vicini allegedly threatened the student with expulsion and possible jail time if he did not admit to his affair with Purvis. After denying the relationship twice, the student finally capitulated, claiming Purvis had first kissed him in a lab storage area. He claimed that for three months, he and Purvis were having sex “two to three times per week.”
Daniel Oest, the district superintendent, reported the allegations to police, and Officer Douglas Bernabei headed the investigation that led to Purvis’ arrest and grand-jury indictment.
After agreeing to resign in exchange for $43,000, Purvis was acquitted of the charges at trial.
She sued Vicini, Oest, Lunn and Bernabei for false arrest and due process violations.
A federal judge allowed her lawsuit to proceed, rejecting administrators’ claim to qualified immunity and ruling that Bernabei might not have had probable cause for the arrest.
The 7th Circuit reversed, saying the administrators were entitled to immunity despite the biased investigation, because they had not knowingly deprived Purvis of her due process rights.
The Chicago-based appeals court also dismissed the former teacher’s claims against Bernabei, saying he had probable cause to make the arrest.
Bernabei had uncovered more than 500 phone calls between the student and Purvis during the time of the alleged relationship, the court noted, and interviews with the student’s mother and other students had added to his suspicions.
Judge Richard Cudahy said the record “establishes that Bernabei had probable cause to arrest Purvis as a matter of law and that there was no constitutional violation.”