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Heotis v. Colorado State Board of Education

Court of Appeals of Colorado, Second Division

March 7, 2019

Sharman M. Heotis, Petitioner-Appellant,
v.
Colorado State Board of Education, Respondent-Appellee.

          City and County of Denver District Court No. 16CV32157 Honorable John W. Madden IV, Judge

          Kris A. Gomez, Brooke M. Copass, Denver, Colorado, for Petitioner-Appellant

          Philip J. Weiser, Attorney General, Julie C. Tolleson, First Assistant Attorney General, Jenna M. Zerylnick, Assistant Attorney General, Sarah P. Roller, Assistant Attorney General, Denver, Colorado, for Respondent-Appellee

          OPINION

          FURMAN JUDGE.

         ¶ 1 Section 19-3-304(2)(l), C.R.S. 2018, requires public school employees who have reasonable cause to know or suspect that a child has been subjected to abuse or neglect to report this fact to appropriate authorities immediately. This case requires us to determine whether a public school teacher must follow the reporting duties of section 19-3-304 despite the circumstances in which he or she learns of or suspects child abuse and neglect. We conclude that a public school teacher's reporting duties do not cease when he or she leaves the classroom.

         ¶ 2 In this case, the district court reviewed and upheld a final order of respondent, the Colorado State Board of Education (Board), denying the teacher's license renewal application of petitioner, Sharman M. Heotis. The Board denied Heotis's renewal application because while she was employed as a public school teacher, she did not report to authorities that her then-husband had sexually abused their daughter from the time their daughter was three years old until she was eleven. The Board determined that her failure to report the abuse amounted to "unethical behavior because it offended the morals of the community" according to Colorado's Teacher Licensing Act, section 22-60.5-107(4), C.R.S. 2018.

         ¶ 3 On appeal, Heotis makes two broad contentions in challenging the district court's decision. First, she contends that the Teacher Licensing Act is unconstitutional, both facially and as applied to her, because this Act does not provide for a range of sanctions for misconduct. Second, she contends that the evidence in the record does not support the Board's conclusion that she "engaged in unethical conduct because it offended the morals of the community" on the ground that she learned of the abuse in her role as a parent. She thus contends that the Board's denial of her license renewal application was "manifestly excessive" and a "gross abuse of discretion." Because we disagree with Heotis's contentions, we affirm the district court's judgment.

         I. Heotis's License Renewal Process

         ¶ 4 Several months before the expiration of her teacher's license, Heotis submitted a renewal application to the Board. The Board voted to deny her application based on her "immoral conduct and unethical behavior regarding her failure to report the abuse of her daughter."

         ¶ 5 Heotis then filed a request for a hearing at the Office of Administrative Courts. Following a three-day hearing, the administrative law judge (ALJ) issued an initial decision upholding the Board's denial of Heotis's teacher's license renewal application. The ALJ determined that Heotis's conduct offended the morals of the community, finding, in part, as follows:

• Heotis "testified that it was not important to her to know what had actually transpired between her husband and her daughter."
• Heotis "chose not to report the abuse."
• By not reporting the abuse of her daughter, Heotis placed her daughter "at risk of suffering further abuse at the hands of [the husband]," and "keeping the matter secret meant that [Heotis] took no steps to obtain any help" for her daughter.
• After learning about the abuse, Heotis permitted her husband "to teach music lessons to others, including children, in the home." "[T]hese lessons regularly occurred when [Heotis] was not at home."
• After her daughter's friend's mother reported the abuse, Heotis responded, "[W]hy are you trying to ruin my life?"
• Heotis pleaded guilty "to a misdemeanor count of child abuse" and received a deferred sentence.
• In retrospect, Heotis "wishes she had reported the abuse" and "acknowledged that she should not have been influenced by the request of an 11 year-old [sic] to keep the abuse a secret."
• Although an expert witness concluded that Heotis "suffered from [battered woman syndrome]," Heotis's failure to report her husband's abuse was not due to this syndrome but was "entirely due to [Heotis's] own assessment of the damage that reporting would cause to her family life."

         ¶ 6 The Board adopted the ALJ's initial decision in its final order denying Heotis's license renewal application, determining that Heotis engaged in "unethical behavior because it offended the morals of the community," and that the ALJ's findings and conclusions regarding why Heotis failed to report the abuse of her daughter were supported by substantial evidence. The Board reasoned that because Heotis failed to report the abuse, her daughter "remained in danger of continued abuse" by the husband and that Heotis's failure to report "placed other children at risk" because the husband continued to teach children private music lessons in Heotis's home after she learned of the abuse.

         ¶ 7 Heotis then brought an action for judicial review of the Board's final order. In a detailed and reasoned decision, the district court upheld the Board's order.

         ¶ 8 To address Heotis's contentions, we first discuss the Board's authority to deny a teacher's license renewal application under the Teacher Licensing Act. We then consider the standard for judicial review of final agency actions. We last turn to Heotis's specific contentions on appeal.

         II. The Board's Authority

         ¶ 9 The Board may deny an application for renewal of a teacher's license when the Board determines that an applicant is "professionally incompetent or guilty of unethical behavior." § 22-60.5-107(4). The Board's rules define "unethical behavior" as "immoral conduct that affects the health, safety, or welfare of children, [or] conduct that offends the morals of the community." Dep't of Educ. Rule 2260.5-R-15.02(10), 1 Code Colo. Regs. 301-37 (effective until Aug. 14, 2018) (rules renumbered effective August 14, 2018, but their content remains the same). To warrant denial of a license, the Board must find the teacher's behavior to be "substantial or continued." Dep't of Educ. Rule 2260.5-R-15.01, 1 Code Colo. Regs. 301-37 (effective until Aug. 14, 2018).

         III. Judicial Review of the Board's Action

         ¶ 10 A court must hold unlawful and set aside an agency action for the following reasons:

[I]f . . . the agency action ...

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