Thursday, January 11, 2007
C.A. Revives Sex Harassment Suit Against Charter School
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
A student allegedly embarrassed by a teacher at a local charter school did not have to comply with the Government Tort Claims Act before suing the school for sexual harassment because the school is not a public entity, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
In an opinion following rehearing, Div. Seven changed its previous conclusion and ruled that Courtney Knapp’s failure to comply with the act’s claim presentation requirements was not fatal to her lawsuit against Palisades Charter High School.
The panel unanimously reversed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joe W. Hilberman’s order granting summary judgment to the school, which exists pursuant to a June 2000 charter from the LAUSD.
Under the act, individuals may not sue public entities unless they first file a detailed written claim with the entity and the entity rejects the claim.
Applying the recent California Supreme Court case of Wells v. One2One Learning Foundation (2006) 39 Cal.4th 1164—which was decided just before the rehearing of Knapp’s appeal—the justices held that PCHS was not a “public entity” subject to the act because it operates independently of LAUSD.
In Wells, the high court held that various charter schools being sued by distance learning students did not qualify as “public entities” because they were not operated by the public school system. The schools’ only relationship with the chartering districts was through the charters, the court noted, and they acted autonomously in regard to their finances, legal matters and management.
Justice Laurie D. Zelon, writing for Div. Seven, reasoned that PCHS is similarly independent of its chartering authority.
As an alleged nonprofit public benefit corporation, she said, it is a separate legal entity that has its own board of directors and authorized agent for service of process, operates on its own budget, and hires its own administrators and teachers.
“It is likewise given substantial freedom to achieve academic results free of interference by the LAUSD, whose chartering authority comprises the sole relationship with PCHS,” she wrote, noting that its charter requires it to carry its own insurance and bond, hold the LAUSD harmless from claims arising from the school, and take full responsibility for its own financial services.
Zelon added that PCHS is not a “public agency” required to register with the secretary of state and the county clerk for the Roster of Public Agencies.
Presiding Justice Dennis M. Perluss and Justice Fred Woods concurred in the opinion.
In its now-withdrawn July 24 opinion, the court had not focused on the question of whether PCHS was a public entity, but on whether the LAUSD or county was the proper entity with which Knapp was required to file her claim under the act before suing PCHS. Knapp, who had filed a claim for damages with the county but not the LAUSD prior to suing PCHS, had argued she was excused from the district filing because the school existed independently of the LAUSD.
Knapp’s attorney, Edwin Carney, told the MetNews his clients are happy the case will go back to the trial court where the issue can be resolved before a jury.
“It was clear from Wells that the charter high school could not be considered a public agency at all,” he said.
Attorneys for the school did not return MetNews phone calls.
Knapp, now a sophomore at Oaks Christian High School, sued PCHS in June 2004 alleging that history teacher Ronald Cummings, now semi-retired, used sexual innuendo and profanity to embarrass her while she was an eighth-grader visiting the school.
She claimed that while she accompanied a student to Cummings’ 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, 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.
Carney said Knapp decided to filed a petition for rehearing on Aug. 8 after numerous people, upon reading reports on the ruling, called expressing their disagreement with the court.
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 an amicus brief in support of Knapp on rehearing.
The case is Knapp v. Palisades Charter High School, 07 S.O.S. 158.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company