Thursday, March 29, 2007
S.C. Declines to Review Ruling on Harassment Suit Against Charter School
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday declined to review a ruling that a charter school, which is being sued for sexual harassment, is not a public entity for purposes of the Government Tort Claims Act.
None of the court’s seven justices, meeting in San Francisco for their weekly conference, voted to grant Palisades Charter High School’s petition for review of a Jan. 10 ruling allowing Courtney Knapp to sue the school.
Knapp’s lawyer, Edwin Carney, told the MetNews yesterday that it was “about time” the parties “moved on with the real issues in the case.”
The Court of Appeal ruling, by this district’s Div. Seven, was a turnaround from a vacated ruling that the act applied, barring Knapp from suing because she did not file a timely claim.
In the new ruling, the panel 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 Los Angeles Unified School District.
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 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.
In its earlier opinion, the court had not focused on the question of whether PCHS was a public entity, but on whether the LAUSD or the county was the proper entity with which Knapp was required to file her claim under the act before suing PCHS.
San Diego-based attorney Greg Moser, who filed an amicus brief for the California Charter Schools Association and California Charter School Association Joint Powers Authority in support of PCHS’s Supreme Court petition, said the high court’s action yesterday “means that charter schools will probably take a harder line in terms of saying that a number of public agency laws do not apply to them.”
“If they’re going to be treated like private entities for liability purposes then they’re going to behave more like private organizations and less like governmental organizations,” he remarked, noting that any change in the “legal environment” would not affect day-to-day classroom operations.
Knapp 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 Christian School, which Knapp chose over PCHS allegedly due to her traumatic experience.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company