Fired N.Va. Teacher Loses Legal Bid to Return

David Perino was found not guilty of sexually abusing a student with Down syndrome but was fired.
David Perino was found not guilty of sexually abusing a student with Down syndrome but was fired. (Margaret Thomas - Margaret Thomas Twp)
By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 8, 2006

After all the difficulties David Perino encountered as a teacher -- his arrest on charges of sexually abusing a student, his acquittal in court and his firing in spite of that -- he thought he had one last recourse: Sue. Sue them all.

And so he did. Last summer, Perino filed eight lawsuits against the Prince William County school system and several of its employees, including former superintendent Edward L. Kelly, who died Thursday night.

But last week, Perino's quest to win his job back and clear his name was smacked off course when Prince William Circuit Court Judge William D. Hamblen ordered sanctions against him and his attorney. Hamblen declared that the lawsuits constituted harassment, the school system's attorney said. The judge ordered the pair to pay more than $14,000 to cover the school system's legal fees.

Perino and lawyer Pamela Cave have less than 30 days to appeal the sanctions. They say they intend to.

In the realm of civil litigation, sanctions are rare against a plaintiff or defendant, according to officials with the Virginia Bar Association and the National Education Association.

"I don't recall one of our attorneys ever being sanctioned," said Robert Chanin, who has been general counsel for the National Education Association since 1968. "They are ordered if a lawyer truly brings a frivolous case without good faith or a legal basis. Don't harass the other side and waste the court's time."

In fact, filing lawsuits for the purpose of harassing a party without legal basis can be a violation of Virginia State Bar rules.

Perino and Cave, a Fairfax County family law specialist who is working pro bono, say the suits constituted a proper legal effort to recoup Perino's lost income and his reputation after he was fired. The School Board took away his job after colleagues and supervisors gave statements against him in board grievance hearings.

Perino said that because he had been acquitted in court, he considered their statements to be defamatory. He believed they made their remarks knowing they were false.

"It shocked me that the judge would issue sanctions. If you feel like you have a reason to pursue a cause, you should do that without fear of reprisal," said Perino, 40, who, after losing his job, sold his Fredericksburg home and moved with his wife and three children to southwestern Pennsylvania to be near relatives.

School officials, however, say the employees' comments were used within the context of employment hearings and therefore were "privileged" and could not be considered defamatory.

In her request for sanctions against Perino and Cave, school system attorney Mary McGowan said Perino did not show that school officials acted with malice, a necessary element of defamation.

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