The apparent end of the lawsuit filed by former Ames School Principal Colleen Lieggi on behalf of her two daughters came with the push of a button last week. On Aug. 27, U.S. District Court Judge Elaine Bucklo dismissed the case, posting her order on the federal court’s website and emailing it to the lawyers.
Bucklo ruled that, as a matter of law, Lieggi didn’t have a case worth going to trial.
In March, Lieggi, acting on behalf of her daughters, sued the village of Riverside, Riverside Police chief Thomas Weitzel, police Lt. David Krull, Village Manager Peter Scalera, Village Attorney Lance Malina, and four private citizens, Stephen Battersby, Sue Corrigan, Mary Lescher and Christopher Robling.
She claimed the defendants had violated her daughters’ right to privacy by releasing or distributing a Riverside police report that detailed an investigation into claims that the children had been sexually abused.
The investigation concluded that there was no evidence to support the claims and exonerated the people who were accused — Susan Battersby, the daughter of Stephen Battersby, the Corrigan family and Lieggi’s former husband.
Bucklo ruled that the private citizens did nothing wrong in distributing the report.
“Individual defendants cannot be held liable for disseminating a lawfully obtained police report that touches on matters of legitimate public concern, even if the report also contains private details falling outside the scope of the public’s interest,” Bucklo wrote.
“That was my position from the beginning,” said Stephen Battersby in an emailed comment.
Corrigan and Stephen Battersby gave the police report to all the members of the Riverside Elementary School District 96 Board of Education. Robling and Lescher were accused of distributing the report to others. Robling emailed the report to around 90 people as a part of an effort to recruit school board candidates.
The key to Bucklo’s ruling seems to be that she found the controversy arising over Lieggi as a result of the police report a matter of the public interest.
Bucklo ruled that Weitzel, Scalera and Malina had no liability because Lieggi’s complaint failed to claim that they knew that Krull released the police report until after the fact.
Bucklo did not address the issue of whether it was constitutional for Krull to release the police report. She said she didn’t need to rule on that issue, because even if Krull acted unconstitutionally in releasing the report he was entitled to qualified immunity, which protects a government official from liability for civil damages.
The judge ruled the plaintiffs did not establish a clearly protected constitutional right, because the right to privacy must be balanced against the right of the public to view “a police report in which the public has a legitimate interest.”
Lieggi has 30 days to appeal the judge’s ruling. Contacted by email Lieggi referred all questions to her lawyers. Her lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.
Krull, Weitzel and Scalera declined to comment about the judge’s ruling.
Lieggi was forced to resign by the school board in April after five months of controversy about her and the district’s actions, which came to light after the Landmark disclosed the matter in 2012.
In Sept. 2011 allegations were made, later determined to be unfounded, against Susan Battersby, who was then a part-time gifted teacher at Ames School. She also had babysat for Lieggi the previous summer. The Corrigan family and Lieggi’s former husband were also accused of sexually abusing Lieggi’s daughters. Two weeks after the initial allegations against Battersby, Lieggi and District 96 moved to fire Battersby and removed her from her classroom for what district officials said were reasons unrelated to the allegations.
After Battersby retained a lawyer and when it became clear that the police found the allegations against her not credible, the district negotiated a separation agreement in which Battersby agreed to resign and the district agreed to pay her for the remainder of the school year.
Battersby has not worked as teacher since then and is now doing office work, according to her father. Susan Battersby declined to talk to the Landmark.
“The person who has really suffered in this is Susan Battersby,” said Sue Corrigan.
Robling singled out Battersby as well.
“It is time to offer Susan Battersby a job to remove this stain from our District 96,” Robling said. “Also, I salute my co-defendants, who suffered the expense and disruption of meritless claims for having done their duty as citizens and officials.”
Robling has filed a counter claim against Lieggi asking for attorney fees; Bucklo has yet to rule on that matter. Robling said that he has incurred legal bills of more than $6,000 and Stephen Battersby said that his legal bills will probably approach that.
Scalera said that the lawsuit did not cost the village any money, because it was handled by the village’s insurance cooperative.
Malina’s law firm defended him in the case. But Malina told the Landmark that under village code his firm, which serves as the village’s attorney, has the right to be indemnified and reimbursed for the costs of defending him. He said that he and his firm have not yet decided whether to ask the village to reimburse the firm.
“We have to talk about that internally,” Malina said. “Technically they’re supposed to cover me, but I’m concerned about client relations too. We may end up eating the costs.”