The family of a teenage girl who filed a lawsuit against Palisades Charter High School for sexual harassment by a teacher changed its legal complaint last week in L.A. Superior Court to seek additional damages.
In an effort to invalidate a series of court losses unfavorable to the legal and financial protection of PaliHi'-and independent charter schools statewide, say legal experts-'the school petitioned the United States Supreme Court in July.
The nation's highest court has not yet announced if it will hear the case, but that decision could come within a week. Each year, thousands of cases are sent to the Supreme Court in hopes of overturning lower court decisions. The court historically hears less than one percent of the cases submitted.
The lawsuit against PaliHi was filed in June 2004 by Dr. Thomas Knapp, father of a then-13-year-old parochial student who alleged she was harassed by longtime teacher Ron Cummings during a visit to his history class in February while she was touring the school as a prospective student. The suit alleges that'-among other charges'-Cummings commented on her breasts, humiliated her religious background and unnecessarily interspersed a class lecture on European history with sexual innuendo.
Knapp filed the suit after then-Principal Linda Hosford refused to follow Knapp's demand that Cummings be fired.
The California Supreme Court declined the school's petition in March of this year, essentially making the decision of the Second Appellate District court into law. That decision stripped the school of its identity as a 'public entity' and redefined it as a 'non-profit public-benefit corporation.'
The consequences of that seemingly minor change are now beginning to have significance: no longer a 'public' school, PaliHi loses protection from punitive damages as well as other legal and financial threats historically extended to public schools and their employees…
The California Supreme Court has rejected Palisades Charter High School's request to review a court decision that weakened the legal position of the school's sexual harassment case and the legal protections of independent charter schools, their employees and their board members statewide.
The California Charter Schools Association lawyer Greg Moser said the decision could be 'devastating,' jeopardizing the financial health of independent charters and their ability to attract and retain employees and volunteers.
Independent charter schools, like PaliHi, are financially and operationally independent of school districts. The four other public schools in Pacific Palisades are not financially independent of LAUSD and are unaffected by the case.
The sexual harassment case at PaliHi will now head to trial, unless the school agrees to settle out of court. The date for the trial has not yet been set…
The case was dismissed twice on technical grounds, based on the California Government Tort Claims Act (TCA). But the Second Appellate District Court reversed its previous decision after a Knapp appeal. The Supreme Court's unwillingness to review the case means that the appellate court's ruling stands, leaving the high school unprotected by the TCA.
That law gives extensive legal protections to public entities and their employees. For example, it imposes a six-month deadline from the date an alleged act occurred for filing a claim with a public entity. Public entities have historically included the state, counties, municipalities, school districts and, until recently, independent charters like PaliHi. For non-public entities, like individuals or private corporations, the statute of limitations can be as long as two years.
Projecting potentially serious consequences for state independent charters, the CCSA will pursue a legislative solution, says Moser, who petitioned the Supreme Court to review the case.
He argues that because independent charter schools must take on many of the conventional burdens of local government agencies, they should be given the same legal protections. But because of the PaliHi decision, school employees and board members could now be legally liable for actions within the scope of their job…
Knapp said that his daughter's experience at the school excluded the possibility of sending her to the high-performing school. He demands the school pay for the cost of four years of private high school, which he estimates at no less than $125,000.
'You have to believe that the school knew about this teacher's behavior for years,' said Carney [Knapp's attorney] who hopes the lawsuit will force the school to change how it handles complaints about teachers…
A student allegedly embarrassed by a teacher at a local charter school did not have to comply with the Government Tort Claims Act before suing the school for sexual harassment because the school is not a public entity, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
In an opinion following rehearing, Div. Seven changed its previous conclusion and ruled that Courtney Knapp’s failure to comply with the act’s claim presentation requirements was not fatal to her lawsuit against Palisades Charter High School.
The panel unanimously reversed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joe W. Hilberman’s order granting summary judgment to the school, which exists pursuant to a June 2000 charter from the LAUSD.
Under the act, individuals may not sue public entities unless they first file a detailed written claim with the entity and the entity rejects the claim.
Applying the recent California Supreme Court case of Wells v. One2One Learning Foundation (2006) 39 Cal.4th 1164—which was decided just before the rehearing of Knapp’s appeal—the justices held that PCHS was not a “public entity” subject to the act because it operates independently of LAUSD.
In Wells, the high court held that various charter schools being sued by distance learning students did not qualify as “public entities” because they were not operated by the public school system. The schools’ only relationship with the chartering districts was through the charters, the court noted, and they acted autonomously in regard to their finances, legal matters and management.
Justice Laurie D. Zelon, writing for Div. Seven, reasoned that PCHS is similarly independent of its chartering authority.
As an alleged nonprofit public benefit corporation, she said, it is a separate legal entity that has its own board of directors and authorized agent for service of process, operates on its own budget, and hires its own administrators and teachers.
“It is likewise given substantial freedom to achieve academic results free of interference by the LAUSD, whose chartering authority comprises the sole relationship with PCHS,” she wrote, noting that its charter requires it to carry its own insurance and bond, hold the LAUSD harmless from claims arising from the school, and take full responsibility for its own financial services…
The California Charter Schools Association, which represents the interests of a majority of the over 600 charter schools currently operating in the state, and the CCSA-JPA joint powers authority, which provides group self-insurance, insurance and risk management services to more than 130 of those charter schools, jointly filed an amicus brief in support of Knapp on rehearing.
The case is Knapp v. Palisades Charter High School, 07 S.O.S. 158.
CALIF. JUDGE VOIDS DAMAGES: SCHOOL WINS NEW TRIAL IN CASE VS. FORMER PALISADES TEACHER, Fall 2002, Student Press Law Center
CALIFORNIA — The $4.35 million in damages awarded to a former Palisades Charter High School teacher for a sexual harassment claim against the district were simply too high, a state superior court judge ruled June 7.
In a decision that recognizes student free-expression rights, Judge Kenneth Freeman threw out the verdict against the Los Angeles Unified School District that resulted from comments published in an underground newspaper distributed on campus. Freeman granted the district’s motion for a new trial, citing prejudicial jury instructions and improper evidence.
The case went to court after Janis Adams alleged that students had sexually harassed her in an issue of the Occasional Blow Job. After the paper jokingly suggested that Adams was a porn star and superimposed her head on a photo of a nude model, the administration banned the publication’s distribution and suspended and transferred five of its publishers.
In another move that bordered on censorship under California’s student free-expression laws, six other students were also suspended for the satirical publication. A 300-student protest ensued, criticizing the administration for coming down on the students with “an iron fist.”
Although Adams never pursued a libel claim against the students, she sued the district for failing to take immediate corrective action to address the students’ conduct.
A jury in March awarded Adams $1.1 million on compensatory damages and $3.25 in damages for emotional distress…