Monday, April 23, 2007
C.A. Throws Out Ex-Principal’s Defamation Suit Against LAUSD
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
The Los Angeles Unified School District and former superintendent Roy Romer cannot be held liable for comments in which Romer questioned a high school principal’s ability to control student violence, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled Friday.
Affirming an order by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Susan Bryant-Deason, Div. Five rejected invasion of privacy and defamation claims brought by former Jefferson High School Principal Norman K. Morrow.
Morrow—who retired from Jefferson last January—sued the district over publicly reported statements that Romer made in the wake of three major on-campus student brawls that erupted in the spring of 2005.
The incidences at the South Los Angeles school involved Black and Latino students who reportedly attacked one another along race lines. In the first fight, approximately 100 students rioted in the school cafeteria, resulting in three injuries.
The second melee, which yielded two arrests and one serious injury, also involved about 100 students and had links to a gang dispute, administrators said. Over 20 students were involved in the third incident, which broke out on the eve of a planned event that district officials had scheduled to address the first two brawls.
The fights prompted campus visits by then-Mayor James Hahn, then-Mayor-Elect Antonio Villaraigosa, and then-Los Angeles School Police Chief Alan Kerstein. Among the media outlets covering the brawls and their aftermath was the Los Angeles Times.
Comments to Reporter
In his lawsuit, Morrow claimed that negative remarks Romer made to a Times reporter for publication in a June 1, 2005 article defamed him and infringed his privacy.
He also asserted causes of action for age discrimination, race discrimination, and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
The newspaper story reported Morrow’s impending resignation following criticism relating to the brawls, and stated that Romer “voiced the need for stronger leadership at Jefferson.”
Romer reportedly said that Morrow “‘had retirement plans that did not fit with the district’s needs’”—meaning LAUSD needed to replace him at the end of the school year, prior to his scheduled retirement date—and that his handling of the recent violence had “‘accelerated’” the decision to replace him.
Morrow was not quoted in the story, which said he declined to comment on his retirement plans and could not be reached after his meeting with the local district superintendent.
‘Performance Evaluation’ Claimed
Morrow’s defamation claim alleged that LAUSD lacked any basis for transferring him out of Jefferson, that Romer’s statements and the district’s actions compelled him to retire seven years earlier than he had originally planned, and that damage to his professional reputation resulted in economic loss.
With regard to privacy, the ex-principal said Romer’s reported statements amounted to a “performance evaluation,” which should have been conducted in a closed session of the school board. The superintendent was barred from publicly discussing personnel matters by Government Code Sec. 54957, he said, noting that his job performance and retirement plans were “highly personal.”
Morrow also asserted that LAUSD failed to comply with an applicable collective bargaining agreement that established the exclusive procedure for taking personnel actions, and said had helped improve academic performance and security at Jefferson, and that the 2005 brawls were due to LAUSD’s failure to heed his warnings.
The district moved to strike Morrow’s defamation and invasion privacy claims under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 425.17, the anti-SLAPP statute.
Morrow conceded the issue of student violence was of public interest, but contended Romer’s statements did not concern that issue. Instead, he said, they merely revealed his retirement plans and the reasons for a personnel action, which were matters of private interest.
Rejecting his position, Bryant-Deason found the allegedly defamatory remarks were privileged. The superintendent was acting pursuant to his official duty when he expressed his concern that Jefferson High have a “principal who could handle the violence,” the judge explained.
Moreover, she said, Sec. 54957 did not bar Romer from discussing Morrow’s performance outside of a closed school board hearing. Sec. 54957, a provision of the Brown Act, excepts meetings concerning public employees personnel matters from the act’s general requirement that sessions of local public bodies be open to the public.
Bryant-Deason noted that Romer’s statements appeared to have been “pretty circumspect” under the circumstances.
Div. Five similarly rejected Morrow’s position.
Writing for the panel, Justice Sandy R. Kriegler concluded that “none of the challenged statements divulged private information.”
Calling Morrow’s invasion of privacy claim “untenable,” he said Romer only mentioned the then-principal’s retirement plans “to the extent they directly concerned the school district’s solution to the student violence.” No “gratuitous details” were published, nor was there evidence they were offered to the press, Kriegler noted.
As for the defamation claim, he wrote, it was defeated by the executive privilege set forth in Civil Code Sec. 47. Romer’s comments about Morrow were in the context of “publicly explaining the district’s response to a matter of widespread concern, which was one of his official duties,” he explained.
Morrow failed to demonstrate a probability of prevailing on the merits of either claim, Kriegler wrote.
Presiding Justice Paul Turner and Justice Orville A. Armstrong concurred in the opinion.
Morrow’s appellate counsel Henry R. Kraft, of Parker & Covert in Tustin, told the MetNews the court’s decision was “unfortunate.”
“We’re just concerned that the decision sends a message that public officials can make disparaging remarks about public employees without any legal consequences,” he said, noting his client is currently employed in the private sector in a job relating to education, but has not been able to find employment in either public or private schools.
A decision to appeal will not be made until he meets with Morrow this week, he said.
The former principal also has yet to decide how to proceed with his remaining claims, he added.
LAUSD’s appellate counsel, Deborah C. Saxe and Geoffrey P. Forgione of Jones Day in Los Angeles, did not return MetNews phone calls.
The case is Morrow v. Los Angeles Unified School District, 07 S.O.S. 2033.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company