A last-ditch attempt by the Los Angeles Unified School District to limit its liability for damages caused by the horrific sexual abuse of dozens of former Miramonte Elementary School students was roundly rejected last week by Superior Court Judge John Wiley. Wiley is presiding over lawsuits brought by dozens of children who were abused by convicted pedophile teacher Mark Berndt, as well as additional claims lodged by parents who LAUSD failed to notify about numerous incidents of Berndt’s inappropriate conduct that occurred over several decades. Many of the young children were photographed by Berndt in bondage-style poses and were also fed a substance thought to be Berndt’s semen by spoon or on cookies as part of so-called “tasting games.” Berndt was arrested in January 2012 and is currently serving a 25-year sentence in state prison.
In a wide-ranging decision, Judge Wiley rejected motions made by LAUSD lawyers seeking the dismissal of two of the plaintiffs’ legal claims. In the first motion, LAUSD argued it couldn’t be held liable at all for emotional distress suffered by the parents of the abused children. District lawyers contended that LAUSD was not aware of Berndt’s inappropriate behavior, and that even if administrators had known about it, there was no duty under the law to notify parents.
In denying the district’s motion on the parental claims, Judge Wiley pointed to “evidence that, by 2010, LAUSD had at least eight warning signs that [Berndt] posed a predictable, grave and general risk to children.” The evidence Wiley cited includes a 1983 incident in which Berndt exposed himself to students on a field trip, reports in 1991-92 of Berndt masturbating in class, and numerous reports of Berndt inappropriately photographing children, as well as other misconduct. Wiley concluded that LAUSD “did realize that all parents of particular students in Berndt’s care ‘would almost certainly suffer severe emotional distress upon their discovery’ that Berndt was a predator.”
The decision upholding parental claims may substantially increase the district’s monetary exposure in the litigation. LAUSD lawyers have consistently argued that parents of abused children have no right to compensation, despite the fact that LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy made public statements soon after the scandal broke in 2012 in which he acknowledged the parent’s emotional distress. Ronald Labriola, a partner with The Senators (Ret.) Firm, LLP, which represents dozens of abused Miramonte families, said the district’s position on parental claims has been “cynical, disingenuous, and hypocritical.” Labriola said that “the notion that parents who must place their trust in the school district with ensuring the safety of their children cannot be compensated when that trust is recklessly violated borders on the absurd.” Labriola also noted that in the wake of the Miramonte abuse revelations, LAUSD modified its internal policies, which now provide for parental notification of allegations of teacher misconduct, even when such claims are still being investigated.
In a second motion, LAUSD argued that it could not be held liable for injuries to abused children as the result of violations of California statutes prohibiting sexual harassment in schools. Judge Wiley rejected the district’s interpretation of the law and ruled that a jury should decide whether the district failed in its duty to prevent the kind of harassment suffered by the Miramonte victims. According to plaintiffs’ lawyers, the court’s decision may result in LAUSD having to pay the plaintiffs’ attorney’s fees above and beyond any compensatory damages awarded at trial. Those fees could total millions of dollars as a result of almost three years of hotly contested litigation. “LAUSD put itself into this situation by refusing to come to terms with its wrongful conduct and failing to make things right by the kids and parents,” said Labriola.
In addition to denying LAUSD’s motions to dismiss the parental and sex harassment claims, Judge Wiley also denied the district’s request to prevent plaintiffs’ lawyers from obtaining deposition testimony from district officials about certain child abuse records. Some of that testimony concerns so-called Suspected Child Abuse Reports or SCARs which are written reports to law enforcement agencies required by law to be made by “mandated reporters” such as teachers. LAUSD admitted last May that in 2008 it destroyed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of SCARs its teachers submitted voluntarily over several decades, allegedly because district lawyers determined that the documents were confidential. Several months later, the district reversed course and said it had located several hundred SCARs in a district warehouse, none of which, its lawyers allege, involved Mark Berndt. This revelation caused plaintiffs’ lawyers and the court to question LAUSD’s original story, and added an element of confusion about what exactly was destroyed in 2008, and why.
Nevertheless, LAUSD urged Wiley to stop all further inquiries into the SCAR destruction issues. The district claimed that since it was not legally authorized to retain the documents in the first place, the issue of what happened to them is not relevant. Judge Wiley disagreed, observing that “evidence regarding the destruction of the records is crucial to plaintiffs’ case.” The judge noted that the evidence could be critical to counter LAUSD’s argument “that it did not know of Berndt’s abuse because it does not have any reports on him.” Wiley said that the plaintiffs “must have the opportunity to counter this assertion with evidence that LAUSD no longer has reports about any teachers because it destroyed the records of its child abuse unit.”
The first Miramonte trials are set to start on November 4, 2014.