Attorneys at The Senators (Ret.) Firm LLP confirmed today that they have reached an agreement with the Los Angeles Unified School District to settle the claims of dozens of children who were sexually abused and exploited by former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt for $139,750,000. Berndt is serving a 25-year prison sentence for allegedly feeding his sperm to children and photographing them engaged sadomasochistic poses. The first “bellwether” trial in the litigation, which is consolidated before Judge John Shepard Wiley in the Los Angeles Superior Court, was in the jury selection stage when the settlement was announced.
The Senators (Ret.) Firm represents 38 of the 82 children who will receive settlement checks. A retired California Court of Appeals Justice appointed by the Los Angeles Superior Court will allocate the settlement proceeds among the plaintiffs.
The Miramonte settlement is the largest personal injury recovery involving a public school district in history, and comes after almost three years of intense litigation during which plaintiffs’ lawyers uncovered evidence that LAUSD administrators had ignored complaints about Berndt’s conduct made by parents, students and other teachers since at least 1983. In addition, it was discovered that LAUSD in-house lawyers may have ordered the destruction of thousands of suspected child abuse reports and other records of misconduct going back decades. District lawyers were also accused of intimidating witnesses, including a former teacher and a legal secretary.
“The size of the settlement reflects the seriousness of the misconduct by the District,” said Ronald Labriola, a Partner at The Senators Firm. Labriola said that an independent panel should be appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to investigate what went wrong at Miramonte and other LAUSD schools where sex abuse by teachers has been confirmed. Such an investigation was in fact ordered by former LAUSD John Deasy who appointed civil rights lawyer Connie Rice and former California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno to head up a commission to investigate Miramonte in 2013. However, LAUSD admitted earlier this year that its Office of General Counsel had quietly ordered the outside investigation deferred indefinitely, supposedly because of budgetary constraints. Victims’ lawyers painted a very different picture, arguing that LAUSD did not want an open investigation for fear it would reveal evidence of misconduct, including document destruction.
For LAUSD, the Miramonte settlement does not end its ongoing legal troubles. Earlier this year the District paid $5,000,000 to settle the sex abuse claims of two students at Telfair Elementary School in Pacoima where convicted former teacher Paul Chapel allegedly molested them. Also, the District faces more than a dozen lawsuits arising out of the alleged sexual abuse of young students at George de la Torre Elementary School in Wilmington by convicted teacher Robert Pimentel. The Senators Firm represents children and their families in both of those matters.