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OCEANSIDE: Judges mull MiraCosta settlement appeal
Must rule by mid-December
September 15, 2009
An appeals court heard oral arguments this week over whether former MiraCosta College president Victoria Munoz Richart should return thousands of dollars in cash and benefits she received from the college in a 2007 settlement agreement.
The lawsuit over Richart's $1.6 million settlement was filed by local activist and Carlsbad resident Leon Page. He sued MiraCosta and Richart in August of that year, saying the college erred in the agreement because state law caps executive payout packages at no more than 18 months salary and benefits.
On Sept. 23, Superior Court Judge Thomas P. Nugent rejected that argument and ruled that Richart would not have to return the settlement as the lawsuit demanded.
Page appealed the ruling, alleging the lower court judge misinterpreted certain aspects of state employment law.
Both sides in the case made oral arguments before the appeals court Monday.
Page said Tuesday that he thought the judges' questions indicated they understood the issue.
"They'd clearly done their homework," Page said. "It's a 2,000-page record, and they seemed like they had read it."
Attorneys representing MiraCosta and Richart did not return calls for comment Tuesday.
Richart's settlement came after two years of rancor at MiraCosta. The saga started with the illegal sale of a few palm trees by several members of the colleges generally-well-respected horticulture department and ended with the college on warning status from a state accrediting agency.
That warning has since been lifted, and several seats on the board of trustees have turned over, infusing the college with a new atmosphere of collegiality. MiraCosta has more recently seen record enrollments as laid-off workers seek new skills.
In reaching the settlement with Richart, attorneys for the college said the $1.6 million payout was warranted because Richard had a valid claim for damages against the school. They said those claims stemmed from public comments some board members made about her leadership during a tumultuous saga that started with palm trees and ended with her departure.
In his 10-page ruling in September, Nugent stated that state law limits cash payouts only for legal claims "arising out of the contract being terminated." The ruling said Richart still probably had other valid claims against the college separate from her contract.
"It is the finding of this court that the decision of the board to pay settlement monies to Richart was not arbitrary, capricious, entirely lacking in evidentiary support, contrary to established policy, unlawful or procedurally unfair," Nugent wrote.
In his appeal brief Page and his attorney Ron Cozad, accused Nugent of "uncritically accepting" the fact that Richart had a valid claim for damages against the college and its elected leaders...