Fairfax school board pays Sean Lanigan $72,838 in legal fees

Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post - Sean Lanigan, head coach of the Herndon High School boys soccer team, before a game against Fairfax High School on May 5, 2011, in Centreville. Lanigan is a school teacher and soccer coach who was falsely accused of molesting a sixth-grade girl.

The Fairfax County School Board has agreed to pay more than $72,000 in legal fees to teacher Sean Lanigan, who was falsely accused, jailed and then acquitted of molesting a 12-year-old girl, ending a lawsuit Lanigan filed to recover most of his costs.

The county’s payout is $72,838, although that does not include fees for the lawyers Fairfax hired to fight Lanigan’s request for nearly a year, nor does it include the fees Lanigan incurred to obtain the reimbursement.

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Defending himself against two felony sex abuse charges in 2010 cost Lanigan, 45, about $125,000. State law allows a county or state employee who is cleared of criminal charges to recover legal fees and expenses but not other costs, which for Lanigan were about $18,000. Court records show Lanigan first sought $107,838 for his fees and expenses in July 2010, two months after his acquittal in Fairfax County Circuit Court.

Eight months later, the school board voted to offer Lanigan $60,000. Lanigan then sued for the entire amount.

With a trial date approaching, the school board agreed in a closed session Thursday to pay $72,838: Lanigan’s original request, minus $35,000 he received in an insurance payment from the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers union, a school official and Lanigan’s lawyer said.

Lanigan said Friday that he is not satisfied with how the settlement came to a close.

“This has been two years of long work,” Lanigan said. “It does not make me financially whole, and it’s not as if the court case never happened.”

He acknowledged that state law did not require Fairfax to reimburse his full costs, “but if they wanted to truly back their teacher, they would take care of me,” Lanigan said.

John Torre, a Fairfax schools spokesman, said in a statement that the school board agreed to cover Lanigan’s legal fees that were not already paid to him by his union insurance policy.

The school board and Lanigan “reached a settlement on essentially the same terms that were offered to him last November,” Torre said in the statement.

William Reichhardt, Lanigan’s attorney, strongly disagreed with the claim that the terms were “essentially the same” as in November, but he declined to discuss specifics.

“It took an extremely lengthy period of time to get to this result,” Reichhardt said, “which as far as I’m concerned could have been done long before last November.”

Thomas Cawley, the lead attorney for the school board, did not return a message seeking comment.

Lanigan, a married father of three, was a well-respected physical education teacher at Centre Ridge Elementary School in Centreville, the boys soccer coach at Herndon High School and a coach of various other youth soccer teams. In January 2010, a sixth-grade student at Centre Ridge told her parents that Lanigan had picked her up in the school gymnasium, briefly fondled her, then carried her to an equipment room and lay “kind of on top of her” on a stack of tumbling mats, according to a police report.

The incident happened while three other children were in the gym with school in session, the girl said.

The girl’s parents reported the complaint to school officials, who called police. But Fairfax child sex crimes detectives Nicole Christian and Rich Mullins did not interview the girl, instead watching as she was interviewed by a county social worker. Witnesses said Lanigan had reprimanded the girl for verbally abusing younger children, that she faced the loss of her positions as a safety patrol and in-school news reporter, and that she told them: “Mr. Lanigan’s a jerk. I’m going to make him pay.”

School employees also testified that tumbling mats were not kept in the room where the girl said she was taken, and that such mats would not fit in the cramped space.

The detectives interviewed a friend of the accuser who corroborated her account. Two boys also in the gym said they didn’t see anything. The detectives interviewed Lanigan, who said he might have picked the girl up, but that he didn’t fondle or lay on her.

Christian obtained warrants charging Lanigan with abduction and aggravated sexual battery of a child under 13, and ordered him to surrender on a Friday afternoon. He was not able to appear before a judge for four days, time he spent in the Fairfax County jail as an accused child molester. Fairfax police issued a news release with his photo and home address, and the allegation attracted local media attention.

Fairfax Police Chief David M. Rohrer said Friday he could not comment on the case.

Lanigan’s lawyers investigated and thought they could persuade Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh to drop the case. But Morrogh refused, having previously prosecuted another popular teacher who eventually pleaded guilty to molesting a student. Morrogh did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Lanigan testified at trial that he did not molest the girl. The girl admitted telling her friends she “hated” Lanigan, and she clarified that he did not lay on top of her, but rather over her. The case went to the jury with Lanigan facing a possible 40 years in prison.

The jury took 47 minutes to acquit Lanigan of both charges.

But Fairfax schools declined to allow Lanigan back into Centre Ridge, instead reassigning him to South Lakes High School.

When the school district stalled on Lanigan’s request for financial reimbursement, he agreed to tell his story to The Washington Post, which was featured in an article last year in April. Lanigan said the article caused him to receive thousands of dollars in donations to help defray his costs, and he and his wife were featured on NBC’s “Today” show.

The settlement of the suit does not cover Lanigan’s legal costs for the current case, which neither he nor Reichhardt would disclose. The county’s legal fees were not available Friday.

 
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