The Court of Appeals Western District ruled June 16 that the state of Missouri is liable for a $4 million judgment against a St. Louis teacher who molested a student.
The court held that, because the St. Louis Public School was under state control at the time the abuse occurred, the district qualified as a state agency that was entitled to coverage under the state’s Legal Expense Fund.
Steve Gorny of The Gorny Law Firm in Kansas City, an attorney for the student, said the ruling was good news for his client, though he wasn’t certain it was the end of the case.
“There’s enough financially at stake that it will not surprise me if they apply” for transfer to the Missouri Supreme Court, he said.
Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, declined to comment on the ruling and said no decision had been made regarding a further appeal.
Although the judgment itself is large, the Western District was careful to note that the overall risk to state funding was small. The court said other school districts in Missouri are not state agencies because they are governed under different statutes. The St. Louis district is “the sole member of a class of one,” Judge Alok Ahuja wrote for the court.
“Our holding that the actions of its employees are covered by the Legal Expense Fund will have limited significance beyond the confines of this particular entity,” he wrote. Judges Mark D. Pfeiffer and Gary D. Witt concurred.
The former student at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, identified in the complaint by her initials S.M.H., sued former music teacher Allen Merry in 2015, alleging he had sexually molested her for years starting in 2006, when she was 15. Merry pleaded guilty in 2012 to 17 felony counts of statutory rape, sodomy, sexual exploitation and related charges.
After the attorney general’s office declined to represent Merry, a St. Louis judge granted a default judgment for the victim in 2018. Last year, a Cole County judge agreed that the expense fund was liable.
The St. Louis Public School District lost its state accreditation in 2007. Under a state law that applies only to St. Louis, its schools were controlled until 2017 by the Special Administrative Board of the Transitional School District of the City of St. Louis. Ahuja described that body as having “significant and pervasive State control, completely unlike the governance of any other school district in the State.”
The court compared the state’s control of district as similar to that of the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners, which ran the city’s police department until 2013. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the board counted as an “agency of the state” that was entitled to coverage under the expense fund.
Ahuja also noted that the unique arrangement in St. Louis originally was established as part of the settlement that ended the city’s school desegregation litigation.
“The Transitional School District was created to remedy past wrongs committed by the State, of a long-running lawsuit in which the State was a principal defendant. The TSD’s unique role in the resolution of the St. Louis school desegregation litigation distinguishes it from every other school district in the State, and supports our conclusion that it is an ‘agency of the state’ for purposes of” state law, Ahuja wrote.
Gorny said he’d stressed the desegregation suit’s role in the creation of the district and was glad the Western District addressed it.
“As is often the case in appellate arguments, you don’t get to necessarily tell the story you set out to tell,” he said. “But I was very pleased to read that the Court of Appeals really studied the historical context and made that part of the opinion, which I think is enlightening and will be helpful to the Supreme Court if they take it.”
The case is S.M.H. v. Schmitt, WD83050.