Wednesday, July 26, 2006
C.A. Rejects Sexual Harassment Suit Against Local Charter School
Panel Says Plaintiff Should Have Filed Claim With LAUSD, Not School or County
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
A student who asked for $125,000 in compensation for an alleged incident of harassment, in which a teacher at a charter school intentionally used profanity and sexual innuendo to embarrass her, cannot sue because she failed to file a claim with the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Court of Appeal for this district has ruled.
Div. Seven Monday unanimously affirmed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joe W. Hilberman’s ruling that Courtney Knapp failed to show that she either substantially complied with the Government Claims Act, or was legally excused from complying.
Knapp, whose family lives in Pacific Palisades, was a 13-year-old student at a local Christian school when she attended an event called “Shadow Day” at Palisades Charter High School in February 2004. The event gave prospective enrollees the opportunity to follow a PCHS student to two classes, and Knapp shadowed her friend Kaylie McCallister to an advanced placement European history class taught by Ronald Cummings.
During class, Knapp alleged, Cummings humiliated her with sexual banter including a comment to the class about her breasts and use of the word “cock” in his lecture.
Knapp’s father, Thomas Knapp, notified the school of his daughter’s allegations and demanded that it either fire Cummings or pay for four years of tuition at Oaks Christian High School, which Knapp chose over PCHS due to her allegedly traumatic experience.
When the school declined to negotiate on Knapp’s demands and advised her that she must first file a claim complying with the Government Tort Claims Act, Knapp’s attorney, Pasadena lawyer Edwin Carney, filed a claim for damages with the County of Los Angeles alleging that PCHS violated Knapp’s civil rights and failed to properly supervise and discipline Cummings.
Stating that the incident did not involve the county or its employees, the county rejected Knapp’s claim demanding that LAUSD pay $125,000 for four years of Knapp’s private high school education.
Without first filing a claim with PCHS or the LAUSD, Knapp in June 2004 sued PCHS, LAUSD and Cummings for sexual harassment and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
Failure to Comply
Hilberman granted the defendants’ summary judgment motion, which asserted that Knapp had inexcusably filed her claim with the wrong entity, thus failing to comply with the Government Tort Claims Act, and that she failed to substantially comply with the act because she never clearly indicated to PCHS that she would take legal action.
Under the Government Tort Claims Act, individuals may not sue public entities unless they first file a detailed written claim with the entity and the entity rejects the claim.
The appellate panel, agreeing with Hilberman, ruled that Knapp did not actually comply with the act’s claim presentation requirements because she never filed a claim with PCHS or LAUSD.
Moreover, the panel held, Knapp did not substantially comply with the act because she did not clearly convey an intention to sue PCHS.
Writing for the panel, Justice Laurie D. Zelon characterized Knapp’s statements to PCHS, such as “[I] really didn’t like what happened,” as mere “vaguely worded communications.”
The justices further rejected Knapp’s argument that she was excused from filing her claim with LAUSD because PCHS was an entity independent of LAUSD, and that she was excused from filing her claim with PCHS because its failure to register with the state and county as a public agency barred application of the act to her claim.
“[A]fter examining the Charter Schools Act and the prerequisites for registration with the Secretary of State and county clerk, we determine both that PCHS is a subdivision of LAUSD and that it need not be listed on the Roster of Public Agencies.”
Because charter schools are operationally but not legally independent from their chartering authorities, Zelon explained, Knapp was required to file her PCHS claim with LAUSD. Moreover, she wrote, PCHS’s independence from LAUSD was “enumerated, temporal, and conditional” so the charter school was not a separate public agency for purposes of the act.
Carney told the MetNews that the justices were wrong on the issue of substantial compliance, because his client clearly gave PCHS notice of her claim before filing suit.
“This is what is baffling about this whole case,” he said. “We gave them all sorts of letters and witness statements, they investigated the claims, and they had a closed session executive meeting with their attorney present after the investigation was completed….They knew they were being sued.”
The court’s conclusion that Knapp’s allegations were vaguely worded “defies common sense,” Carney added.
Regarding his failure to file with the LAUSD, he acknowledge he made a mistake but said his client agreed he did his best and was not pursuing a malpractice claim.
“I contacted the county and whoever I spoke with there indicated that they were the proper entity to file with the LAUSD, and I took them at their word. It turns out they were wrong, and I was foolish to rely on them. I feel terrible.”
He added that serving LAUSD would not have added anything to the case.
“The only thing they would have done is send it down to PCHS and say, ‘Take care of this. This is not our problem.’ That’s what’s stupid about this decision,” he said, adding that even PCHS in its summary judgment motion papers asserted it was the proper entity to receive notice.
In an interview with the MetNews, PCHS’s attorney, John S. Levitt of the Westlake Village firm Soltman, Levitt & Flaherty, acknowledged that the court’s analysis benefited his client.
“We argued that Palisades [high school] was a separate legal entity and should have been given notice as well as LAUSD, but the trial judge and court of appeal said we were wrong, that even though we are a separate entity the notice doesn’t go to us but to LAUSD,” Levitt said.
“But either way,” he added, “the court ruled that the documents that were submitted to Palisades [high school] did not constitute substantial compliance with the Government Tort Claims Act.”
Levitt said he believed Knapp did not necessarily make up her allegations, but instead misinterpreted statements by Cummings, who the attorney said is now semi-retired and has never received similar complaints from other students.
The case is Knapp v. Palisades Charter High School, 06 S.O.S. 3891.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company