Court: Davis schools immune from damages in Altice teacher sex suit

Tuesday , December 05, 2017 - 5:00 AM

Leah Hogsten/Salt Lake Tribune

Brianne Altice at her sentencing in July 2015. The Utah Court of Appeals ruled Nov. 30, 2017, that local school districts are immune from damages due to negligence in the hiring and supervision of teachers who have sex with students. Altice, now 38, is held at the Utah State Prison and has an April 2019 parole hearing scheduled.

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner Staff

Utah law provides no civil remedy against a school district that allegedly is negligent in the hiring and supervision of a teacher who has sex with students, the state Court of Appeals has ruled.

The decision, issued Nov. 30 in Salt Lake City, turned aside the appeal of a former Davis High School student who said in a lawsuit against the Davis School District that English teacher Brianne Altice lured him into a sexual relationship in 2013.

RELATED: Board denies Altice's bid for parole in sex cases

The student was 17 at the time. He said he had intercourse with Altice at least four times, first at her home and later on or near school grounds during the school day. 

The Standard-Examiner does not identify juvenile crime victims or victims of sex crimes.

The teen’s parents initially sought $674,000 in damages in a claim against the district on Jan. 30, 2014. Later, the teenager, by then an adult, filed suit in 2nd District Court in Farmington. Judge John R. Morris dismissed the suit on Jan. 7, 2016, saying the district had governmental immunity. The teen’s attorneys then appealed to the Court of Appeals.

Davis County prosecutors said Altice had sexual relationships with three boys. The other two still have suits pending in Salt Lake City U.S. District Court against Altice and the school district.

Altice pleaded guilty to three counts of forcible sexual abuse, all second-degree felonies, in April 2015. In July 2015, Judge Thomas L. Kay sentenced Altice to three prison terms of 1 to 15 years. She is held at the Utah State Prison in Draper and has a parole hearing scheduled for April 2019.

In the Farmington suit, the Court of Appeals concluded that state law and Utah Supreme Court precedent barred the student from recovering damages from the district.

“It might seem counterintuitive that our law provides no civil remedy against a school district that is alleged to have negligently hired and retained a teacher who has illegal sexual contact with her minor students,” said the opinion, written by Appeals Judge Ryan M. Harris.

Harris said the Utah Supreme Court in 1993 “reluctantly” dismissed a similar case.

“Our supreme court invited legislative action by noting its ‘sympathy’” toward students in such situations, Harris wrote. The 1993 decision said it was “unfortunate that any parent who is required by state law to send his or her child to school lacks a civil remedy against negligent school personnel who fail to assure the child’s safety at school.”

But the Legislature has never amended the law to provide such a remedy, Harris noted. Under the language of the law, “the district is entirely immune from suit for the acts alleged here.”

Efforts to contact Erik Ward, the student’s Ogden attorney, about a potential appeal were not immediately successful.

In all the civil cases, school district attorneys and representatives of the Utah Attorney General’s Office have leaned on the immunity provisions and also have denied claims that school officials were aware of questionable activities by Altice before she was arrested.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/SEMarkShenefelt.