Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Solana Beach School District ordered to pay $580,000 in attorney fees in Doyle case

Solana Beach School District board members have been called out by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal for wasting taxpayer money and for denying a free and appropriate public education to a little girl. The district has been ordered to pay $580,000 to the little girl's lawyers, who were dragged by the district from court to court, year after year.

Here's what the board members of Solana Beach School District would say in their own defense: we were trying to protect our resources so we  could spend them on regular students.

But if they're like most school districts, of course, they also fail to give an appropriate education to vast numbers of regular students.  The money saved by violating the legal rights of special education students is likely to go to some administrator or outside vendor rather than to a regular classroom.

I'd estimate that the number of regular students who never reach their full potential, and end up locked-out of the American Dream, is much higher than the number of special education students who are left behind. 

So, where do school districts get the idea that they are free to violate the law? School boards aren't supposed to substitute their own judgments for the law of the land. 

UT-San Diego notes, "The Solana Beach School District has ended up with more than $800,000 in legal bills in a special-education dispute that started over one family’s $6,100 of private-school tuition. The district unsuccessfully fought the Doyle family, now living in Utah, through several federal appeals and attempted to involve the U.S. Supreme Court. A federal court commissioner on Aug. 1 ordered Solana Beach to pay nearly $580,000 in attorney’s fees for the Doyles, on top of hundreds of thousands the district has paid for its own counsel."

The idea is to make it so costly and onerous to sue a school district that future lawsuits will be prevented, and the district will actually save money in the long run. It's sort of like the Vietnam War: schools know they can't win, but they want to let their enemies know that they will pay dearly for challenging a school district.

But wait, you say, these are our children, not armed adversaries. 

And the parents are part of the public that funds the schools!

Well, apparently that's not how school boards see the situation. Believe it or not, school districts actually have lists of parents that are considered "enemies".

The lawyers representing Solana Beach School District in the Doyle case were just doing their job.

The law holds the client--in this case, the school board--automatically responsible for any improper actions in litigating the case. If the board members were to try to shift the blame to the lawyers, I'm confident they would lose. Afterall, the board knew exactly what it was doing. Solana Beach School District was represented by Fagen, Friedman Fulfrost and Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz in the Doyle case.

Our justice system is based on the theory is that if both sides in a case fight equally hard to win, we'll end up with a fair decision a large part of the time. Young lawyers are instructed to fight like hell for their clients. That's the most important rule, the one that everyone seems to follow.

The goal is to end up with a decision that everyone will be willing to accept, whether or not it is actually just. We go along with the decisions for the sake of peace in society. 

We try to ignore the fact that most parents can't afford $580,000 worth of legal assistance.  (I believe the Doyle's were represented by pro bono attorneys, but there aren't enough pro bono attorneys to keep schools honest.)

Schools, of course, can reach deeply into taxpayer pockets to fund their own legal defense.

Also, most lawyers won't sue public entities (particularly not schools and police agencies).  Why not?  Because the school attorneys will tell the jury, yes, sure, this school district might not be a candidate for sainthood, but you don't want to hold it financially responsible, do you?  You don't want to make a school district pay money, do you?  

The result?  Schools can operate quite freely outside the law.

We actually have a decision-producing system rather than a justice system.

Will the Doyle decision cause a change in schools? 

Not unless the voters take some action at the polls.

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