Monday, July 24, 2017
Court of Appeal Says Action by Ousted Teacher Not a SLAPP
Former Educator May Press His Contentions of Bizarre Actions by LAUSD, Under Ruling
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district has declared that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark V. Mooney made the right call in declining to scuttle the action of a renegade ex-teacher who alleges bizarre actions by the Los Angeles Unified School District in connection with an investigation of him, culminating in his discharge.
The plaintiff, Rafe Esquith, has attracted national news coverage over his allegations against the LAUSD, including his assertion that it maintains a “teacher jail” described in his complaint as a place where teachers on suspension “are forced to spend their days staring at cubicle walls and not accessing electronics.”
On the other hand, the Los Angeles Times has reported that it “obtained records of the district’s investigation into Esquith, including allegations that he fondled children in the 1970s and that in recent years he inappropriately emailed former students, describing them as hotties and ‘sexy’ and referring to himself as their personal ATM.”
The Times revealed:
“Esquith’s work computer contained inappropriate pictures and videos, according to the documents. Some women were shown wearing bikinis, while others were topless or nude.”
Whether Esquith is an exemplary educator, as he portrays himself to be, or a danger to students, as LAUSD contends, will have to be determined in Mooney’s courtroom unless the California Supreme Court grant review and countermands the Court of Appeal.
Esquith’s lawyer, Mark Geragos, commented Friday:
“[I]t wouldn’t surprise me if LAUSD seeks review given their legal strategy is never cost benefit related but instead scorched earth. Interesting footnote is that their fools errand will cost them in costs and fees on the taxpayers dime.”
Appellate lawyer Linda Miller Savitt, who represents LAUSD, did not respond Friday to a request for comment.
Appeals Court Opinion
Justice Audrey Collins of Div. Four wrote the opinion, filed Thursday, affirming the denial of the LAUSD’s anti-SLAPP motion. The opinion, which was not certified for publication, said:
“The gravamen of Esquith’s complaint…is discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. The investigation, the press releases, and certain adverse employment actions are, according to the complaint, evidence of the alleged discrimination, harassment, and retaliation….[A]n employer who has allegedly engaged in discrimination, harassment, and retaliation may not use the anti-SLAPP law to strike a complaint when the plaintiff’s causes of action are based on such allegations.”
The complaint alleged that an investigation of the plaintiff, who taught fifth-graders, was launched in 2015 “to cook up negative facts and smear Mr. Esquith’s reputation in the community”; that his pupils were “grilled” about him with the use of “heavy-handed interrogation tactics”; that a gag order was imposed on him precluding him from responding to parents’ queries; and that questioning of him “followed no conventional interviewing protocol or any appropriate or logical line of questioning.”
The complaint went on to aver that after Esquith filed a claim against the governmental entity and which gained “national attention,” LAUSD “set a plan in motion to orchestrate bizarre abuse allegations designed to retaliate against Mr. Esquith for bringing a notice of intent to sue.”
It averred that “LAUSD’s mouthpiece”—LAUSD General Counsel David R. Holmquist, who is a defendant in the action—“arranged for an elderly woman to call a major media outlet to claim that her son was now accusing Mr. Esquith of abuse dating [back] forty years, when Mr. Esquith was a teenager,” adding:
“Mr. Holmquist proceeded to inform the media that the investigation would now be looking into this new allegation.”
This allegedly caused Esquith to contract stress-induced thrombosis, requiring his hospitalization.
Ethics Breach Alleged
Esquith, who taught at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School, formed a nonprofit organization, called the Hobart Shakespeareans. According to the complaint, LAUSD demanded the group’s financials for the past 15 years and “wrote directly to the Hobart Shakespeareans on or about July 20, 2015 to point out that the investigation is now actually directed at Mr. Esquith for potential ‘government ethics’ breaches pertaining to the Shakespeareans.”
The pleading declared that the plaintiff had never been accused of such violations and the communication was “specifically orchestrated to assassinate Mr. Esquith’s character.”
Also complained of was a press release issued by then-Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines saying of the investigation of Esquith:
“This is a very complex issue. While I respect that this teacher is extremely popular—and has been for some time—in the briefings that have been given to me, there are serious issues that go beyond the initial investigation. The Los Angeles Unified School District will not be rushed to make a decision and will complete our investigation with the highest level of integrity. The safety and security of every District student will remain our number one priority.”
Reading ‘Huckleberry Finn’
The press release “was designed to retaliate against Mr. Esquith for consistently and publicly opposing many of LAUSD’s wasteful policies and practices,” the complaint asserted.
LAUSD began its probe of Esquith based on a complaint by another teacher that he read aloud to students portions of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” including this passage:
“The duke and the king worked hard all day, setting up a stage and curtain and row of candles for footlights.…At last, when he’d built up everyone’s expectations high enough, he rolled up the curtain. The next minute the king came prancing out on all fours, naked. He was painted in rings and stripes all over in all sorts of colors and looked as splendid as a rainbow.”
The complaint charged that the investigation was predicated on “nothing more than baseless allegations manufactured by LAUSD after the initial complaint against Mr. Esquith was disproven and LAUSD realized it faced catastrophic liability based on the manner and methods it used to remove the world’s most well-known teacher from his classroom because of a Mark Twain quote.”
It was alleged that LAUSD “stole Mr. Esquith’s National Medal of Arts, presented to him personally by the President of the United States of America.”
International Fame Claimed
The complaint described the plaintiff as an “internationally-renowned and award-winning teacher” who was targeted because he was an “outspoken critic of LAUSD’s collusion with big business and its wasteful spending on ill-advised programs.” It also insisted that LAUSD has a pattern of retaliating against teachers who are about to reach the retirement age.
Collins said that because the first prong of the anti-SLAPP statute—that the complained-of activity was protected—was not met, there was no need to discuss the second prong: whether the plaintiff had a probability of prevailing at trial.
The case is Esquith v. Los Angeles Unified School District, B276432.
David Fishman and Zareh A. Jaltorossian of Ballard Rosenberg Golper & Savitt represented LAUSD, along with Savitt. Geragos was joined by Zack V. Muljat and Ben J. Meiselas of Geragos and Geragos in acting for Esquith.
Esquith filed his action on Aug. 13, 2015. He was fired, by a unanimous vote of the school board, on Oct. 13 of that year, and two days later filed a class action on behalf of teachers who allegedly face adverse actions as they near retirement age.
A motion for class certification in that case is slated to be heard Dec. 8. By former Presiding Judge Carolyn B. Kuhl.
Copyright 2017, Metropolitan News Company