After Fairfax County school teacher Sean Lanigan was acquitted of molesting a 12-year-old girl in 2010, he asked the Fairfax school district to reimburse his legal fees, as Virginia law allows. The district delayed for more than two years, requiring Lanigan to hire another lawyer and file suit, before paying him $72,838 in June.
But Fairfax taxpayers paid almost twice that amount to try to keep the money out of Lanigan’s hands. It cost $141,030 for outside attorneys to defend and settle the suit, according to legal billings released by the school district.
Lanigan said he was disappointed that it took two years to reach a settlement, and “surprised at how much time, effort and money was invested by [the school board] to try to avoid paying the legitimate and documented legal costs for my defense. The equivalent of two teachers’ salaries was spent to fight against one of their own.”
In response to an inquiry to Fairfax schools superintendent Jack Dale, spokesman John Torre issued a statement that said the school board offered full reimbursement to Lanigan in November 2011, and that Lanigan “rejected that offer; he later agreed to essentially the same terms in June 2012. When Mr. Lanigan chose to continue his lawsuit in the intervening period, the school board was left with no choice but to continue to defend the suit.”
Lanigan’s lawyer said that was untrue, and that the November 2011 offer was 18 months after his acquittal, by which time he already had been compelled to hire a lawyer and incur more costs. Thomas Cawley, the lawyer who represented the school district, declined to comment.
Lanigan was arrested in January 2010 after a sixth-grade student at Centre Ridge Elementary School in Centreville told her parents, and then a social worker, that Lanigan had picked her up, fondled her, then carried her into an equipment room and lay on top of or over her. Lanigan was charged with abduction and aggravated sexual battery and held in the Fairfax jail without bond for four days, while his photo and home address were distributed in a press release by the Fairfax police.
After hearing testimony from the girl, another 12-year-old witness, Lanigan and five school officials who said the room where the offense supposedly occurred could not have contained the girl and the teacher, a Fairfax jury acquitted Lanigan in 47 minutes in May 2010.
Documents show that two months later, he began seeking reimbursement of $117,822 in legal fees and another $29,750 in lost income from coaching soccer, which he was prevented from doing after his arrest. Neither Dale nor anyone else from the district responded to Lanigan’s requests, Lanigan said.
In March 2011, the school board offered Lanigan $60,000, according to a letter signed by then-board chair Kathy L. Smith. That amount — less than half what Lanigan was seeking — was conditioned on Lanigan waiving any future legal claims against the district. Lanigan declined it.
Lanigan hired an attorney, who filed a breach of contract suit in August 2011. The attorney, William Reichhardt, determined that almost $10,000 of Lanigan’s claim counted as expenses, which were not subject to reimbursement. His lost coaching income from soccer also was not subject to reimbursement. So Lanigan’s suit sought $107,838.
At the same time, Lanigan’s teachers’ union paid him $35,000 in insurance proceeds for the legal fees. That left $72,838 outstanding. In November 2011, when the school district offered that amount, they again added a waiver of future legal claims, Reichhardt said. Lanigan wanted more time to determine whether he had a claim against the district, which was not involved in arresting or prosecuting him and so rejected the offer, Reichhardt said.
By the time trial approached in June 2012, Lanigan decided to waive his future legal claims and accept the $72,838. But by then he had accrued another $20,000 in legal fees simply to obtain the settlement, in addition to his lost $10,000 in expenses from the criminal case and $29,750 in lost soccer coaching income.
Former school board chair Smith and current chair Ilryong Moon declined to discuss the case.
Elizabeth Schultz, who was elected to the board in November 2011, criticized the district for its handling of the case. “We weren’t provided a scintilla of information until the settlement was brought to us,” Schultz said. “We as a school district will delay and obfuscate to our own advantage, no matter what...I just think it’s a shame that we couldn’t find a way to resolve something that was clearly resolvable long before this. This is an inherent, systemic problem with this board, in not finding a way to get to ‘yes’ before things become painful for all parties.”
Lanigan said that “the damage done to my life and reputation from the false charges made against me nearly three years ago is irreparable.”
“That this kind of terrible and irreversible circumstance could happen to an innocent teacher,” Lanigan said, “should have been a signal to FCPS and the Fairfax County School Board that something needs to be done to protect both parties when allegations of impropriety are made by students against teachers.”