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Teacher Acquitted of Sex Abuse Entitled to Costs, Court Says

A former Utah middle school teacher who was acquitted on charges of sexually abusing one of her students is entitled under a state law to be reimbursed for her attorney's fees and court costs, the state's highest court has ruled.

The Salt Lake City school district had sought to bar the ex-teacher, Shelly Acor, from recovering the costs because it argued she had acknowledged an inappropriate relationship with the student.

But the Utah Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Acor's case was covered by the state reimbursement statute, which is meant to help public employees recover costs if they are acquitted of criminal charges for any actions taken in the scope of their employment or under the "color" of their authority.

According to court papers, a former student alleged that she had a sexual relationship with Acor for several years, beginning when the student was in 7th grade in 1995. When Acor was confronted with the allegations in 2005, she resigned her teaching job and told the district superintendent that "there was a relationship and it was totally inappropriate."

The police seized a journal from Acor's home, and a prosecutor later said in court papers that the journal corroborated many of the student's allegations. But the journal and Acor's statement to the superintendent were excluded from her criminal trial, and in 2007 the teacher was acquitted by a jury of all the sex abuse charges against her.

Acor sued the district a short time later, seeking reimbursement of her attorney's fees and court costs. (The state Supreme Court's opinion did not discuss what those costs totaled.) A state trial court denied the reimbursement, but in a Jan. 28 decision, the state Supreme Court ruled for the teacher.

"The Reimbursement Statute leaves no room for a court to question the propriety of an acquittal, ... much less an employee's worthiness for reimbursement on the basis of an unspecified 'inappropriate' relationship," the state high court said in Acor v. Salt Lake City School District. "The district's strongly held and presumably sincere belief in Acor's guilt cannot defeat her right to reimbursement under the statute."

The court said it was clear that the charges against Acor arose out of her job-related activities and duties. It declined to apply a line of state and federal cases in which school districts and other public agencies were held not to be vicariously liable for sexual abuse by their employees because such actions were not part of their job-related duties.

The court said the Utah statute requires reimbursement once a public employee is acquitted of criminal charges, unless the employee is found guilty of substantially similar charges or the charges are dropped by prosecutors.

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