Facing a looming school district deadline for settlement of Miramonte abuse allegations, attorneys representing dozens of families have countered with their own deadline for the Los Angeles Unified School District to respond to a demand letter.
Their action, announced Wednesday outside LAUSD headquarters downtown, appeared to move the Miramonte settlement standoff further in the direction of a high-stakes game of chicken.
"They've put a gun to the families' heads," said Brian Claypool, one of the attorneys representing the total of 65 families that still have unsettled Miramonte claims against the district.
A district settlement proposal to his clients and those of attorney Luis Carrillo will expire on July 5. A digital clock counts down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds on MiramonteSettlements.com, posted on behalf of the LAUSD.
"We wanted people to understand there is a deadline on these offers," said Sean Rossall, who is serving as a spokesman for the district's settlement team.
At issue is the resolution of claims made after the 2012 arrest of Mark Berndt, a former third-grade teacher at Miramonte Elementary School, an LAUSD campus in the Florence-Firestone neighborhood of unincorporated South Los Angeles.
Berndt has pleaded not guilty in criminal court, and his case has yet to reach the preliminary hearing stage. He is accused of deviant behavior against 23 children. Additional families filed civil actions alleging the district was negligent in protecting children.
The district's current settlement offer was made under the terms of Civil Procedure Rule 998. Under its terms, if a plaintiff rejects the offer, and then does not do better at trial, the plaintiff would have to pay a portion of the district's legal fees.
"We think the offers are fair, and we needed to act to safeguard taxpayer resources," Rossal said.
As a public school district, LAUSD is funded largely by property taxes and other government resources.
How much of the settlements will come directly out of the district's funds is yet to be resolved. LAUSD’s insurers are contesting the district's position that the settlements are covered losses.
Plaintiff's attorneys complained that the deadline next week will expire before they have received requested documents regarding the abuse allegations or been able to take the depositions of school district officials.
"That tells you they want to pay these families and make them go away before they have to answer any hard questions," said Vince Finaldi, of the law firm Manley, Stewart, Finaldi, which represents families that have sued the district, but has not participated in the district's settlement process.
In countering with their own deadline, the attorneys gave the district until July 3 to respond to their letter demanding the district provide requested documents, and also suggesting policy changes which the lawyers characterized as "specifically designed to protect children," the letter stated.
"We want to give the district the chance to do the right thing," Finaldi said.
The letter did not spell out any consequences for failing to respond by 5 p.m. July 3, but Finaldi said:
"Until we get answers, these families are standing united that they want answers to what happened, and they want changes to make sure children are protected."
The plaintiff's lawyers pointed out new allegations of abuse at other district schools have arisen since Miramonte, and cite that as evidence that steps taken by the district have been inadequate.
"They're still not getting to the root of the problem," attorney Luis Carrillo said.
So far, 61 families have agreed to earlier settlement proposals, each involving on the order of half a million dollars in financial compensation to cover the cost of lifetime psychological counseling and other damages.
The guaranteed individual payments in the current offer total $770,866.13 over 40 years, but Carrillo said that is insufficient, and a step in the wrong direction, making it more likely the unsettled cases will end up going to trial.
"The offer that was made recently was below that made to the first families, and with that, it's over. Game on," Carrillo said.
As the case moves toward trial, the attorneys are due in Superior Court Thursday morning to deal with discovery issues and other matters.