ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s high court upheld two lower court decisions Wednesday, ruling that school boards must provide insurance for their teachers embroiled in lawsuits, even in sexual misconduct cases.
The Maryland Court of Appeals decision said insurance for teachers and other board of education employees, must be provided if there is a “potentiality” that the alleged wrongdoing occurred within the scope of the employee’s duties.
The ruling means the Montgomery County school board will have to reimburse the Horace Mann Insurance Co. more than $100,000 for defense fees incurred by former Montgomery County teacher Barbara Robbins, who was accused in 1998 of conducting an affair with a middle-school student. Robbins’ civil case was settled by Horace Mann for $15,000, court documents said.
According the lawsuit, Robbins “called him, brought him gifts, sent food to his home, invited him into the bedrooms and other rooms of her home, sent him love cards, wrote him love letters, provided him with transportation, and frequently had . . . sex with him.” The student was at Earle B. Wood Middle School from 1989 to 1993, but the complaint was not pressed against Robbins until 1998.
Criminal charges were not pressed against Robbins, according to the Montgomery County Attorney’s Office.
County school boards are required by law to carry comprehensive liability insurance or to self-insure, to protect their teachers from claims made against them that fall “within the scope of employment,” court documents said.
“Its’ a troubling decision, one made more difficult by the fact that it was decided unanimously by three courts,” said George Margolies, staff director for the Montgomery County Board of Education. He added the court’s decision has “tremendous implications,” that “will require further evaluation,” as to how the school board will handle similar cases in the future.
“I think the school system — whenever they feel a teacher has been wrongly charged — has never failed to represent that teacher,” Margolies said.
The Montgomery County teachers’ union called the case “an exception,” saying that abuse allegations against teachers in Montgomery are rare and that the school board usually provides adequate defense and support for its teachers when questioned.
“Our view is that it’s certainly important that the Board of Education defend its teachers when sued, especially since we are in an increasingly litigious society” said Tom Israel, executive director of the Montgomery County Education Association, which represents 11,000 employees.
The Maryland State Teachers Association, comprising more than 60,000 state education employees, said the court’s ruling was a positive step for teachers, because it holds school boards accountable to insurance liability obligations.
“It improves the chances that school boards will pick up their responsibility,” said Susan Russell, chief counsel for the Maryland State Teachers Association.
“When you are dealing with students on a day-in and day-out basis there are a lot of allegations that come up over time. Teachers don’t make enough money to pay for these kinds of expenses. They shouldn’t have to prove they’re not guilty in order for their school boards to represent them,” Russell said.
Horace Mann Insurance and teacher unions said they were pleased with the court’s decision.
However, the associate Montgomery County attorney who decided the Board of Education was not legally obligated to defend Robbins, Sharon Burrell, said she strongly disagreed with the court’s decision.
“The Court of Appeals opinion interprets the law statewide,” Burrell said. “Ultimately it states that we have to defend her, even though by her own omission she acted beyond the scope of employment. . . . There’s never been a case exactly like this by the Court of Appeals.”