Aimee Palmitessa was charged with 12 felony counts for having sex with one of her students at Brentwood School; the student was a minor at the time.
Last August, the student – “John Doe” – sued Brentwood School:
“The 33-page complaint documented Palmitessa’s history of suggestive behavior toward students, even before Doe ended up in her classroom. In the complaint, Doe accused faculty and administrators of ignoring warning signs and failing to protect him from sexual abuse. The lawsuit, which included explicit details about how Palmitessa allegedly groomed and assaulted Doe, made headlines.”
And then, Poof! The story seemingly went dark, because of a paragraph within Brentwood’s enrollment agreement which bound the Does to mandatory arbitration.
In other words, the Doe family lost their Constitutional right to a jury. As one parent said to HuffPost, “You shouldn’t have to negotiate, ‘Hey, if my kid gets raped, I want to be able to sue.’ Who in their right mind would think that if a school was negligent on child rape, that would be covered under an arbitration agreement?”
Schools must be accountable for their negligence
In 2015, Taylor & Ring represented Chelsea Burkett in her claim against Marlborough School. While she was a student there, she was sexually abused by her teacher, Joseph Koetters; in her complaint, she said that Marlborough school had ignored allegations against Koetters.
Chelsea spoke with HuffPost about her experiences, saying that “taking her case to arbitration would have been ‘directly antithetical’ to her goal of holding Marlborough accountable.” Because Dave Ring was able to obtain information about allegations and accusations against Koetters from his time at other schools, Chelsea’s case was much stronger.
Filing a lawsuit against a school, Burkett said, was one way to get reforms: the lawsuit “certainly gets their attention and forces them to sit with consequences of the rules they’ve had in place, the people they hired. Even if they change because they don’t want to get sued again, that’s still a win. Ideally, they change because they want to keep kids safe.”
In the time since Chelsea Burkett’s case, Marlborough School has started including arbitration clauses in their enrollment contracts.
Brentwood School is not the only one which uses arbitration to avoid justice
Mandatory arbitration clauses are not new, and neither is the way some schools (and other institutions) use them to avoid accountability. As partner Dave Ring told HuffPost, parents don’t think of what they are giving up when they sign enrollment contracts with arbitration clauses: “Did they really contemplate, ‘If my school harms my kid, I’m stuck in some bogus arbitration hearing?’ [No.] They’re thinking, ‘OK, if there’s a dispute over tuition or my kid drops out and I don’t get all my money back.’”
In the end, that is what all of this comes down to: money. Elite schools like Brentwood could easily afford to hire attorneys for these types of claims, but their social capital would likely take a hit as the case plays in court. Furthermore, if the case is tried to a jury verdict, all of that information – about the abuser, about what the school did or did not do – would be made public knowledge. Parents who believe their children will be unsafe are not going to spend $44,000 a year on tuition.
But arbitration proceedings keep much of that information private, and often limits plaintiffs’ attorneys in what they can and cannot request. Furthermore, because the arbiters’ final ruling is generally unable to be appealed, parents and victims of childhood sexual assault are left without any recourse to move forward.
What can I do if there is an arbitration agreement in my child’s enrollment contract?
If you child was sexual assaulted by a teacher, you can – and should – can an experienced Los Angeles sexual assault attorney. At Taylor & Ring, we have gotten arbitration clauses deemed invalid so that we could pursue justice in court on behalf of our clients. We understand how critical it is that we have access to all the information about your case, and that arbitration can prevent that information from being shared.
At Taylor & Ring, we protect survivors. If that means fighting an unfair and unjust arbitration agreement, we have the resources and skills to do so. If your child was sexually abused by a teacher at Brentwood School, or anywhere throughout the state, our attorneys are ready to help. Please call our firm in Los Angeles at 310-776-6390 or use this contact form to arrange to speak with an attorney, either at our office or at a location elsewhere in California that works best for you.