Wednesday, August 23, 2006
C.A. to Rehear Arguments in Sex Harassment Suit Against Local Charter School
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
Div. Seven of this district’s Court of Appeal late yesterday issued an order granting Courtney Knapp’s petition for rehearing in her sexual harassment suit against Palisades Charter High School.
In an opinion published July 24, the court had affirmed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joe W. Hilberman’s order granting summary judgment against Knapp on the basis that she failed to substantially comply with the Government Claims Act.
Knapp had sued the school in June 2004 alleging that history teacher Ronald Cummings, now semi-retired, used sexual innuendo and profanity to embarrass her while she was visiting the school in February. She claimed that while she was a visiting student to Cumming’s class during an event called “Shadow Day,” where prospective enrollees were given the opportunity to follow a PCHS student to classes, Cummings made a comment to the class about her breasts and otherwise made her feel uncomfortable with sexual banter.
Knapp’s father had notified PCHS of his daughter’s allegations and demanded that it either fire Cummings or pay $125,000 to cover four years of tuition at Oaks Christian High School, which Knapp chose over PCHS allegedly due to her traumatic experience. But PCHS would not negotiate on her demands, advising her that she must first file a claim complying with the Government Tort Claims Act.
Prior to filing her complaint against PCHS, LAUSD and Cummings, Knapp had filed a claim for damages with Los Angeles county, believing it to be the proper entity with which to file. She never filed a claim with the LAUSD, however.
The justices in the July 24 opinion agreed with Hilberman that Knapp’s failure to file with the LAUSD was fatal to her claim.
Because charter schools are “operationally” but not “legally” independent from their chartering authorities, they reasoned, LAUSD was the proper entity with which to file a claim against PCHS.
Knapp’s attorney, Edwin Carney, told the MetNews his client decided to file a petition for rehearing on Aug. 8 after numerous people, upon reading reports on the decision, called expressing their disagreement with the opinion.
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 a letter with the court on Aug. 8 requesting depublication of its July 24 opinion, and asking for leave to file an amicus brief in support of Knapp if rehearing were granted.
In its letter, a copy of which Carney provided to the MetNews late yesterday, the organizations told the court it believed that the holding—-that a charter school is not a public agency within the meaning of Gov. Code Sec. 53050, and that even a charter school organized as a nonprofit public benefit corporation is not legally independent from its charter organizer-—was erroneous and would cause “real harm” to charter schools.
Moreover, the letter stated:
“This opinion will disadvantage claimants. By requiring potential claimants to file their claims with the charter school authorizer, rather than the charter school, the opinion will make it nearly impossible for many claimants to figure out where to file their claim.”
Carney said support from the CSSA, which was one of the first callers who contacted him following publication of the appellate court’s decision, was very helpful.
“We think we’re going to prevail. I think we should prevail, Carney said. “We wouldn’t have filed a petition for rehearing unless we felt we were right. It’s just common sense.”
Palisades Charter High School filed an answer to Knapp’s petition on Aug. 17.
John S. Levitt, counsel for the high school, could not be reached for comment.
The case is Knapp v. Palisades Charter High School, Case No. B185996.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company