The Berkeley Unified School District spent $172,697.15 on a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by a high school student against her guidance counselor, according to records provided by district officials more than a year after they were first requested by California Watch.
All but $46,281.25 of the cost of investigating, defending and settling the case involving Berkeley High School counselor Anthony Smith was paid by the district’s insurance carrier, Deputy Superintendent Javetta Cleveland said in a telephone interview.
Cleveland revealed the information after California Watch reported that since July 2011, district officials had not responded to repeated requests for a breakdown of their spending on the controversial case.
California Watch and a legal watchdog group, the First Amendment Coalition, filed the requests under terms of the state Public Records Act. Peter Scheer, the coalition’s executive director, said district officials had violated state law by failing to respond.
The case itself involved a student identified in court records by the pseudonym Lilah R. In a lawsuit in federal court, she contended in 2010 that Smith had harassed her for much of her junior year and the school district refused to do anything about it.
Smith said he did nothing wrong and still works as a counselor at the high school. Superintendent William Huyett told the girl’s parents that Smith’s conduct was “inappropriate and unprofessional,” but not sexual harassment, court records show. The district settled the lawsuit earlier this year.
According to district records, the spending on the case broke down this way:
- $21,281.25 paid to Pleasanton lawyer Marleen Sacks' firm to investigate the girl’s allegations
- $67,607.54 paid to Pleasant Hill lawyer James Marzan’s firm. He represented the school district in the lawsuit.
- $26,308.36 to the firm of San Jose lawyer Mark Davis, who represented the counselor
- $57,500 to the girl to settle the case
Cleveland said the district’s insurance policy paid the settlement, along with the legal bills submitted by Marzan and Smith’s lawyer – $151,415.90 total. The district paid for the investigation by Sacks' firm and also paid the $25,000 deductible on the insurance claim, she said.
Cleveland said the settlement would not affect the district’s rates.
“One case of this small amount would not change our premium,” she said.
In a statement last week, the school district complained that "there were some statements which were not accurate" in California Watch’s original story. The district claimed it had “satisfied the requirements” of the Public Records Act requests because trial lawyer Marzan had given an interview to a California Watch reporter about the district’s spending.
But as the story reported, Marzan provided incomplete information about how much money the district had spent on the case. He also did not provide public records, which California Watch had requested repeatedly.
The district’s statement also asserted that it was legally entitled to withhold the payment information because it had been “involved in ongoing litigation.” But none of the requests filed by California Watch or the First Amendment Coalition sought information about the sexual harassment lawsuit – just the amount of money the district spent on the case.
Scheer, the First Amendment Coalition director, said the law requires agencies to either turn over requested documents or explain in writing the legal justification for keeping them secret.
"Whether or not they had to turn over the records, it's indefensible for them to simply remain mute,” he said.
Senior reporter Lance Williams contributed to this report.
This story was produced by California Watch, a part of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.californiawatch.org.