A court-ordered, mandatory settlement conference in the child sexual abuse case against the second-largest school district in the country ended with frustrated attorneys leaving Los Angeles Superior Court without a resolution.
LA Superior Court Judge John Shepard Wiley ordered both sides back to the bargaining table for a second day, saying as far as he was concerned they were still under the jurisdiction of the Settlement Court.
Monday brought with it the first real movement in the case that revolves around a former elementary school teacher's perverse attempts to include his students in pornography. That's the claim attorneys for some 75 student victims are claiming against former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt, and against the Los Angeles Unified School District for having employed him. The first group of 75 potential jurors entered Room 222 of the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Downtown LA, the largest courtroom in LA County, to a standing welcome by the various attorneys representing victims and LAUSD and by the judge himself.
"The big decisions are left to us," Judge Wiley said as he explained the possible hardship some jurors could face with a trial that's expected to last into February 2015. "We the people."
Wiley allowed for some comic relief while explaining how important the case would be to serving the community. At one point, he offered up his own eye glasses to someone who couldn't read the hardship form he had handed out. Wiley explained to jurors that most Fridays they would be off and that court would only be in session on most days from 10:30 a.m. to noon, break for lunch, and then wrap up from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. However, in the first round, only 15 claimed they would be able to partake in such a lengthy case and six more were held over from not having proven their hardship.
And that was just round one. The same process is expected to continue daily through Thursday, when those who are willing to take on the long case will have their jury questionnaires discussed - and even then, the case may go nowhere.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs and LAUSD both met behind closed doors Monday to discuss a possible settlement in the case. NBC4 has learned that plaintiffs submitted to LAUSD an offer of $2.5 million per victim - a total of nearly $190 million when you take into account a total of 75 victims have claims - which would be an unprecedented payout for LA Unified, particularly combined with the $30 million already settled among 63 prior plaintiffs in the same case.
"Given the past three years in dealing with the lawyers for the district, I don't hold a lot of hope out that this case will be settled," plaintiffs' attorney Brian Claypool said before the negotiations began.
Claypool represents 16 children who say they were spoon-fed their teacher's semen in a twisted role-playing attempt, which he photographed. It was a film developer who first alerted authorities to Berndt's actions. Berndt plead no contest to 23 counts of lewd acts on a minor in November of 2013 and is serving a 25-year prison term.
"The evidence in this case generated over the last three years is devastating and crushing to the district," Claypool added, warning that the LAUSD needed to decide on whether it would settle in good-faith or not.
We will not be negotiating during trial to settle this case. Either they settle now or they will not settle and we will proceed all the way to jury verdict."
LAUSD in June settled another child abuse case against the district. In the Telfair Elementary School case, a settlement netted two young molestation victims a total of $5 million.
Dave Holmquist, general counsel for the district, released this statement following the announcement of the settlement:
"Unfortunately, plaintiffs suffered harm before the teacher's activities were uncovered. For this reason and in an effort to shield the young children from a long and emotional trial, we are finalizing settlements which we are confident will provide for the future health and educational needs of the students involved."
The attorneys who represented LAUSD for that case are also representing them for the Miramonte case. Thomas Cifarelli represented the two children in the Telfair case and says he thinks LAUSD uses the tactic to begin meaningful negotiations only when it is at a trial's doorstep.
"If this case is going to be resolved, it's going to happen now with the pressure of a trial and a jury staring them in the face," Cifarelli said.
In the Telfair case, Cifarelli said he knew the district was serious when the Assistant General Counsel, Greg McNair, arrived to be part of the settlement negotiation.
"The purpose of that is so that you have the decision makers there, so it's not just the attorneys but the actual people who are involved in this," Cifarelli said.
McNair was not involved in the Miramonte settlement Monday. Cifarelli says the district was fair to his clients when they settled in June. Looking ahead at Miramonte, he says if serious negotiation is to happen, "you're gonna want everyone in the room who can resolve and sign off and put it to bed."
Cifarelli says the district's conduct in child abuse cases is indefensible, and "for that reason I can't imagine them wanting a jury to decide on these facts." He adds that he still has another case stemming from Telfair that he says LAUSD is arguing has reached a statute of limitation issue - Cifarelli says it's an argument meant for private companies, not public entities.
But some of the attorneys in the Miramonte case say they want to make sure if any settlement happens, that the LAUSD's alleged cover-up in the case is not forgotten.
"When the community gets the entire picture, some heads have to roll over there," Luis Carrillo said outside the courthouse when it was apparent no settlement would be reached Monday. Carrillo represents 25 of the 75 victims.
LAUSD's spokesman chose not to comment on the case Monday but repeated some of the steps the district has already done to improve child safety. Those include a policy of 72-hour notification to parents when any teacher is removed for allegations of misconduct, unless instructed by law enforcement not to do so; LAUSD participated in a statewide audit of its policies; the district implemented additional training called "Darkness to Light" to better spot the signs of child abuse for teachers and staff; a new Student Safety Investigation Team was incorporated district-wide and the District has openly supported statewide reform of teacher dismissals and allegations of misconduct.
It's not enough for the plaintiffs' attorneys who say they want showcase what they believe is 30 years of neglect by the District by allowing Berndt to teach even after parents and administrators had complained about his previously alleged perverse behaviors.
"Now the community will know and understand the full extent of 30 years of the district choosing to protect a predator," Carrillo said.
Claypool went a step further saying even if a settlement happens, he hopes this case causes deep change at LA Unified.
"This case has been a platform for us to find out what has gone wrong," Claypool says. "We have essentially done an independent investigation of LAUSD and Miramonte that nobody else would ever do. We are going to take that information that we gathered over the last three years and use it as a blueprint to force LAUSD to make these changes."
Claypool says every one of the 75 alleged victims has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and will require life-long therapy for what happened at Miramonte.
"We need to make sure we never have a Miramonte 2," Claypool says.