Tuesday, October 16, 2007
C.A. Rejects Civil Rights Claims Against Compton USD by Fired Lawyers
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district has affirmed a judgment rejecting claims by an Altadena law firm and its principals that they lost their major client, the Compton Unified School District, because they refused to contribute to two board members’ campaigns for the City Council.
Div. Eight Friday upheld a ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mary Thornton House that several board members were entitled to a verdict of nonsuit because there was no evidence they knew of the alleged retaliatory motive when they voted in favor of shifting work from Jones & Matson, which functioned as outside counsel, largely for personnel and special education matters, to Littler Mendelson, the district’s general counsel.
The Court of Appeal also held, in an opinion by Justice Madeleine Flier, that substantial evidence supported a jury verdict in favor of the remaining defendants and that House did not abuse her discretion in requiring the plaintiffs to pay more than $100,000 in attorney fees to the defendants who prevailed on nonsuit. The trial judge found that the claim against those defendants was frivolous; Flier agreed and said the plaintiffs had ample opportunity to dismiss those members from the case before trial.
The firm, headed by Urrea C. Jones Jr. and Stephen Matson, was contracted in May 2001 to perform services for the district. The contract was approved by the state administrator who was running the district at the time under the direction of the state superintendent of public instruction.
After 2001, the state relaxed its control over the district, replacing the administrator with a trustee who had only a veto power over fiscal decisions, and control over district policy reverted to the elected school board, which in June 2002 voted to renew the Jones and Matson contract, along with those of Little Mendelson and Orbach & Huff, which handled real estate matters. The vote to renew Jones & Matson’s contract was 5-2, with Barbara Jean Calhoun and Erica Quijada-Barrera voting no.
The new contract increased the firm’s hourly fees, but allowed either side to terminate the agreement with 30 days’ notice.
In May 2003, the firm filed a tort claim with the district, saying the district had “abruptly” stopped sending the firm work the previous September, although Jones and Matson later admitted the district had sent them a few cases after that. The firm, which billed over $1 million in fees for the 2001-2002 school year and about $800,000 for 2002-2003, alleged that the reason for the district’s action was that Jones had sent a letter, in response to fundraising requests, saying it was the attorneys’ practice not to become involved in political campaigns.
The requests were allegedly made by board member Isadore Hall and by his brother, who was running Hall’s and Calhoun’s campaigns for the council. Jones said he was told that an effort was afoot to terminate his firm’s contracts, and that he was left with the understanding that support for the firm from Hall and Calhoun was being tied to his willingness to contribute.
The attorneys subsequently filed a second claim, alleging that the district stopped sending them business completely after they filed the first claim. They sued for wrongful termination and violation of their First Amendment rights in late 2003, naming the district, its superintendent and associate superintendent, and six past and present board members, including Hall, Calhoun, and Quijada-Barrera, as defendants.
The district was dismissed on demurrer, and the case went to trial against the six individuals.
At the close of the plaintiffs’ case-in-chief, the judge granted a directed verdict in favor of four board members, leaving Superintendent Jesse L. Gonzales, Associate Superintendent R. Keith Beeman, Hall, and Calhoun as defendants. The jury eventually returned a verdict in favor of all four.
In concluding that nonsuit was correct as a matter of law, Flier explained that under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983, “a public official does not condone or ratify an alleged violation of civil rights merely by allowing a claim for an alleged violation to be litigated.” The alleged failure of the defendants to take corrective action once they learned of the alleged retaliatory motive simply does not amount to a First Amendment violation, the justice said.
As for the remaining four defendants, the justice went on to say, there was substantial evidence supporting the jury’s verdict. She cited testimony by Gonzalez and Beeman that they did not believe there was any diminishment in the use of the plaintiffs’ services prior to their bringing a tort claim against the district, and if there was, it was solely because the district was trying to reduce its outside legal costs.
She acknowledged plaintiff’s evidence that the district’s financial position had not changed so as to require a drastic reduction in legal expenses. But jurors, she said, were entitled to credit testimony by Gonzales that he had become more aggressive in policing expenses because the district had just emerged from full state control and he wanted to avoid a repetition of that scenario.
Gonzales’ assertions, she added, were bolstered by evidence that the firm had continued to bill the district an average of $80,000 per month even after the superintendent had expressed concern and instructed staff members that consultation with the firm was not authorized without his express approval.
The justice also noted that the earlier vote to renew the contract was 5 to 2, with Hall voting in favor and Calhoun against, so that any “swing” by Hall would not have changed the decision, and that Quijada-Barrera, who cast the other negative vote, testified that she did so because she wanted to know more about the firm’s track record and that no one attempted to persuade her to vote otherwise.
Flier went on to say that if the district did retaliate against the firm for filing its tort claim, it violated no laws by doing so. Cases holding that attorneys employed by public entities or corporations cannot be fired for engaging in protected activities do not apply to outside counsel, the justice said.
Attorneys on appeal were James A. Owen for the plaintiffs and J. Michael Declues and Steven J. Lowery of Declues, Burkett & Thompson for the defendants.
The case is Jones & Matson v. Hall, 07 S.O.S. 6194.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company