Thursday, June 28, 2018
C.A.: School District Must Pay $32,000 for Frivolous Appeal
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district has ordered the Baldwin Park Unified School District to pay $31,947.50 to an employee based on a frivolous appeal of discovery sanctions imposed by a judge because it contended that its “director of risk management and benefits” was too important an official to be deposed.
The employee, instructional aide Juanita Denise Schmittle, is suing the district over disability claims. She was granted $9,835 in sanctions by Judge Teresa A. Beaudet after the employer refused to permit questioning of Sergio Cazorla, who oversees claims such as Schittle’s.
That award was affirmed Tuesday in an unpublished opinion by Presiding Justice Tricia A. Bigelow of Div. Eight.
In announcing the granting of sanctions based on frivolousness of the appeal, Bigelow said there was presented “one of the rare circumstances in which sanctions are warranted,” characterizing the appeal as “indisputably without merit.”
—California Department of Insurance
JUANITA DENISE SCHMITTLE
Case Relied Upon
In refusing to allow a deposition of Cazorla, the district cited the 1992 Court of Appeal case Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. v. Superior Court. There, the First District’s Div. Five said:
“We conclude it amounts to an abuse of discretion to withhold a protective order when a plaintiff seeks to depose a corporate president, or corporate officer at the apex of the corporate hierarchy, absent a reasonable indication of the officer’s personal knowledge of the case and absent exhaustion of less intrusive discovery methods.”
Bigelow observed in Tuesday’s opinion:
“The District provided no evidence to show Cazorla’s position as Director of Risk Management and Benefits was the equivalent of a CEO, president, or other ‘corporate officer at the apex of a corporate hierarchy,’ as in Liberty Mutual. Its only argument—which it briefly advances again on appeal—was that his Director title alone was sufficient. There was nothing inherent in his title to suggest he was a high-level executive unconnected to the case.”
She noted that a factor in Liberty Mutual was that the executive who was subpoenaed had no personal knowledge of the matter being litigated. By contrast, the jurist said that “Schmittle presented convincing, unrebutted evidence that Cazorla most likely had discoverable information related to this case.”
His job description says that “[u]nder administrative direction,” he “directs, plans, coordinates, monitors, and administers the daily operations of the Risk Management and Benefits Program” including workers’ compensation and “[c]onsults with medical professional regarding employee injuries, medical treatments, [and] disability management….”
The district also argued that it was justified in not producing Cazorla out of a concern that he would be harassed at a deposition. It produced a protective order issued by the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board and a misdemeanor complaint against Schmittle for violating the order.
“Neither document showed Schmittle would actually harass Cazorla at a deposition (at which the parties’ counsel would undoubtedly be present), let alone that the harassment would be so severe that the District was justified in preventing Cazorla from sitting for a deposition at all. If the District was truly concerned about harassment, it could have sought a protective order to prevent it.”
She commented that various violations of appellate rules by the district’s attorneys evidence a less-than-wholehearted attack on Beaudet’s sanction order. The record, Bigelow said, “demonstrates the District must have had only one real purpose in pursuing this appeal: to impose a costly delay,” adding:
“This appeal postponed the District from having to pay nearly $10,000 in sanctions while burdening Schmittle with having to pay her attorneys three times that amount in order to defend it. Given the frivolousness of the District’s legal arguments, we must infer it was not seeking to attack the sanctions order with any reasonable hope of prevailing, but instead seeking to place the burdens of cost and delay on Schmittle. The District’s claims to the contrary are simply not credible.”
The case is Schmittle v. Baldwin Park Unified School District, B282431.
The sanctions were imposed jointly and severally on the defendant and its appellate counsel, Stephen M. Harber and Dominic A. Quiller of McCune & Harber in downtown Los Angeles.
Schmittle was represented by Westlake Village attorney Janet Gusdorff and by Martin I. Aarons and Shannon H.P. Ward of the Aarons Law Firm in Encino.
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