D.C., A MINOR V. HARVARD-WESTLAKE SCH., 98 Cal. Rptr. 3d 300. Plaintiff D.C., a student, appealed a Los Angeles Superior Court decision in favor of

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1 D.C., A MINOR V. HARVARD-WESTLAKE SCH., 98 Cal. Rptr. 3d 300 Raquel Rivera Rutgers Conflict Resolution Law Journal November 22, 2010 Brief Summary: Plaintiff D.C., a student, appealed a Los Angeles Superior Court decision in favor of Defendant Harvard-Westlake School, awarding over $521,000 in arbitral expenses and attorney fees on the basis that they were not liable for any type of arbitral expense they would not have had to pay in a court case and that because the hate crime laws authorize an award of attorney fees only to a prevailing plaintiff, the arbitrator could not award attorney fees against them. The California Court of Appeal, Second District, Division 1 held in favor of Plaintiff, stating that Armendariz s 1 prohibition of inappropriate arbitral expenses is fully applicable to Plaintiff s hate crimes claim and that hate crimes laws prohibit an award of fees to a prevailing defendant. Therefore, the California Court of Appeal reversed the judgment and remanded the case. Rule: Under the Armendariz prohibition, the statutory rights established by the Ralph Civil Rights Act and the Tom Bane Civil Rights Act are for a public reason and constitute unwaivable statutory rights which render the award of arbitral fees to a prevailing defendant invalid. These hate crimes laws also render award of attorney fees to a prevailing defendant invalid. Facts of the Case: D.C. (Plaintiff) was a student in the upper school at Harvard-Westlake School (Defendant), a private educational institution in Los Angeles, California. D.C. was pursing a career as a singer and actor and maintained a website to promote himself. The site allowed for 1 Armendariz v. Foundation Health Psychcare Services, Inc., 24 Cal. 4th 83 (2000).

2 any member of the public to post comments in the guestbook. Several Harvard-Westlake students used school computers to post death threats against D.C. and make derogatory comments about him regarding his perceived sexual orientation. The school newspaper, The Chronicle, ran more than one article on the matter. Upon reading the threats, D.C. s father immediately informed the school of the problem and contacted the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), which in turn notified the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). As per the LAPD s instruction, D.C. withdrew from Harvard- Westlake, moved, and began to attend a different educational institution. The Chronicle ran an article disclosing D.C. s new residence and school and the specific nature of the comments that had been left on his website. The Chronicle approved the article s publication and Harvard- Westlake did not suspend or expel any of the students who admitted to posting the threats. On April 25, 2005, Plaintiff filed this action against Defendant. The original complaint contained eleven causes of action: negligence; assault upon another with death threats and hate crimes; invasion of privacy; conspiracy to invade the privacy of another; defamation; conspiracy to defame another; intentional infliction of emotional distress; conspiracy to inflict emotional distress on another; negligent infliction of emotional distress; and fraud in the inducement of a contract. Some important aspects of these claims included: imposing liability on Defendant for permitting students to use its computers to make the threats; accusing the Defendant of protecting the students who posted the threats in order to preserve their academic standings, to prevent colleges and universities from learning about their misconduct, and to protect protect the school s reputation; accusing the Defendant of exposing Plaintiff(s) to further harm by publishing an article in The Chronicle disclosing their new residence and D.C. s new school; and alleging Defendant of fraudulent inducement for accepting a substantial sum of money in

3 exchange for the school s promise to provide an environment free of verbal abuse and harassment. This complaint did not include the students who had allegedly posted the comments or their parents as defendants. The complaint alleged that D.C. s reputation had been damages in the amount of $10 million. On May 27, 2005, Defendant filed a petition to compel arbitration of all claims and to stay the civil action pending the outcome of said arbitration based on the contents of Harvard- Westlake s Enrollment Contract, which was signed by D.C. s father. The TERMS AND CONDITIONS portion of the contract contained both an arbitration provision and an attorney fees provision. The petition was scheduled to be heard July 12, On June 8, 2005, Plaintiffs filed a first amended complaint adding the students who had allegedly posted the comments and their parents. It also modified the claims and decreased their number from eleven to nine. Notably, the previous claims for assault and conspiracy to commit assault with death threats and hate crimes were combined into a single cause of action that alleged violations of the Ralph Civil Rights Act and the Tom Bane Civil Rights Act, which generally provide a civil remedy for hate crimes. Plaintiffs alleged that they had suffered emotional harm and economic damages, including moving expenses, caused by the threats. Another modification to the claims sought to implicate the parents of the students who allegedly posted the comments for injury/death caused by willful misconduct of a minor child within the parent s custody and control. On June 28, 2005, Plaintiffs filed opposition to the petition to compel arbitration on the basis that arbitration was improper for various reasons. In reply, Defendant argued that after it filed the petition, Plaintiffs could not amend their complaint in an effort to avoid arbitration. On July 12, 2005, the day of the hearing, Judge Person issued a tentative ruling granting the petition,

4 which compelled arbitration as the school and stayed action as to the students. This was adopted as a final ruling on July 28, Arbitration commenced in November In May of 2006, Defendant moved for summary disposition. Plaintiffs then filed a second amended complaint, primarily based on investigation of the incident. In August 2006, Defendant again moved for summary disposition. Plaintiff filed in opposition and in October 2006, both parties presented argument on the motion. In an October 26, 2006 ruling, the arbitrator granted the motion in part. The surviving claims (all based on common law) were heard by the arbitrator in an evidentiary hearing held on February 12-15, 20, and 22, The arbitrator found in favor of Defendant in an Interim Award dated May 29, She concluded that Defendant was the prevailing party for purposes of attorney fees as per the Enrollment Contract. Defendant filed for $ in attorney fees and costs and $12, in arbiration fees and costs. In the Final Award dated August 20, 2007, the arbitrator ordered Plaintiffs to pay Defendant a total of $521, in arbitration and attorney fees. Defendant returned to the trial court to confirm the arbitration award, while Plaintiffs sought to vacate it. Ultimately, the judge granted Defendant s petition and denied Plaintiff s. Case holding: The Court engaged in a lengthy discussion regarding enforcement of an arbitration award. In its final decision, it relied heavily on Armendariz, a Supreme Court case holding that an arbitration conducted pursuant to a mandatory employment arbitration agreement must satisfy certain minimal criteria if the employee alleges the violation of an unwaivable statutory right. The California Court of Appeal borrowed from the reasoning in Doe v. Perry Community School

5 District 2, arguing that since [p]roviding a safe and non-discriminatory environment for students obviously serves the public interest.... [i]n addition to fostering tolerance and thereby decreasing hate crimes among students, there is no question that the statutory rights established by the Ralph Civil Rights Act and the Tom Bane Civil Rights Act are for a public reason. Thus, these hate crimes laws constituted unwaivable statutory rights. Furthermore, because the instant case involved death threats motivated by a statutorily protected personal characteristic, the protection afforded under Armendariz was extended to Plaintiffs and they were not responsible to pay Defendant s arbitration fees. In regards to the issue of attorney fees, the Court engaged in a similar analysis. The Court reasoned that both the Ralph Civil Rights Act and the Tom Bane Civil Rights Act expressly provide that a court may award attorney fees only to the plaintiff. Neither permits an award of attorney fees to a defendant, even if the defendant prevails. Thus, the Plaintiffs were not responsible for paying Defendant s attorney fees either. In deciding both claims, the Court underscored that one-way provisions of either arbitration or attorney fees in hate crimes laws serve the public purpose of increasing the financial feasibility of bringing suits under those laws for plaintiffs. 2 Doe v. Perry Community School District, 316 F. Supp. 2d. 809, 839 (S.D. Iowa 2004).

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