Lessons in Lawsuits. The Impact of Litigation on California s Schools

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1 Lessons in Lawsuits The Impact of Litigation on California s Schools August 2010

2 Table of Contents Introduction... 1 Methodology... 3 Litigation Costs of Selected School Districts... 4 Discussion... 7 Appendix... 10

3 Introduction Every day, it seems, California s newspapers are reporting on the myriad ways the recent economic downturn is affecting Californians. From layoffs to budget cuts to proposals to permit and tax marijuana, news reports show that desperate times are calling for desperate measures to fill public coffers. Perhaps nowhere is this desperation more visible than in our public schools. In June, the state Department of Education identified a record 174 of California's school districts that were financially troubled, up 38 percent from January. 1 Across the state, tens of thousands of teachers were pink-slipped this year, told the funding for their positions to educate the next generation of Californians was unavailable. In Los Angeles, the L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) has cut disabled children s programs, including shutting down 200 classrooms and an entire campus dedicated to serving the disabled and reducing busing for these students. 2 The Kern High School District (HSD) was forced to auction off and recycle items like buses and student desks to raise money for its general fund. Travel for athletic teams and field trips also have been eliminated. Parents are shouldering additional financial burden as well. Supplies traditionally provided by schools, such as paper towels, sanitary wipes, Kleenex and reams of paper are now popping up on school supply lists. With continuously shrinking budgets, if families don t provide such items, teachers are forced to pick up the tab. 3 California students are sitting in overfilled classrooms, receiving fewer services and being asked to shoulder the burden of financial decisions in which they played no part. This comes at a time when California is already struggling academically: California ranks 45 th in 4 th grade math 4 California ranks ahead of only Mississippi in 8 th grade reading Forty percent (40%) of California State University freshmen are unprepared for collegelevel math and nearly 50 percent (50%) for college-level English. 5 1 Record 174 school districts on fiscally troubled list, Capitol Alert, June 29, 2010 <http://blogs.sacbee.com/capitolalertlatest/2010/06/record-174-school-districts-on.html#ixzz0vv18h0w3> accessed August 2, Blume, Howard. Disabled students losing 200 classes; Budget crises reached L.A. Unified s most vulnerable, but the district says it will still serve them well. Los Angeles Times. June 3, pg. A1. 3 Clifford, Stephanie. Scissors, Glue, Pencils? Check. Cleaning Spray? New York Times, August 15, 2010 <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/15/business/economy/15supplies.html?src=busln>accessed August 16, U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, NAEP State Comparisons <http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/statecomparisons/> accessed August 1,

4 (There are) too many attorneys with too much time on their hands. There are always people looking to stick it to schools. Mike Turnipseed Executive Director Kern County Taxpayers Association In the midst of such poor performance and deep budget cuts, wasteful spending is especially difficult for parents and educators to stomach. Every dollar spent outside of the classroom is a dollar that could be better invested in our children and our future. When those dollars are diverted to courtrooms instead of classrooms, the only winners are the personal injury lawyers and those trying to cash in at the expense of California students. Around the state, headlines broadcast the litigation our schools are facing more and more frequently. Student and mother sue district over piano mishap. Injury lawsuits increasingly common in schools. Settlement in middle school dress code flap. Legal costs over $1.3M hurt VCUSD. Just how much money are our school districts spending to defend themselves against lawsuits? And how does this litigation affect California s students? California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse undertook the following analysis to answer those questions. The results are startling. 5 Benefield, Kerry. Half CSU freshmen lack needed skill. Press Democrat, July 19, <http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/ /articles/ ?title=half-csu-freshmen-lack-neededskills> accessed August 1,

5 Methodology Through the Public Records Act, California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse contacted 12 school districts across the state to request financial data showing each district s costs for outside legal counsel, costs in legal settlements and costs in jury awards. The report examined: Capistrano Unified, Elk Grove Unified, Fresno Unified, Kern High School, Long Beach Unified, Los Angeles Unified, Merced Union High School, Modesto City, Poway Unified, San Diego Unified, San Juan Unified, and Santa Ana Unified. Additional data and information about school districts financial decisions were collected via internet research. 3

6 Litigation Costs of Selected School Districts In the last three years, 12 of the state s 967 school districts (as of the school year) spent a total of $98.7 million on verdicts, settlements and attorneys contracted by these districts. Table 1: Litigation Costs by District, District Outside Counsel Costs Settlements and Jury Capistrano Unified (Orange County) Total $5,017,401 $0 $5,017,401 Elk Grove Unified $3,968,405 No response $3,968,405 (Sacramento County) Fresno Unified $3,863,786 $947,159 $4,810,945 Kern High School $2,007,030 $283,698 $2,290,728 Long Beach Unified $9,425,101 $0 $9,425,101 (LA County) Los Angeles Unified $31,547,082 $13,141,972 $44,689,054 Merced Unified High $884,309 $0 $884,309 School Modesto City $920,772 $546,721 $1,467,493 (Stanislaus County) Poway Unified $2,431,276 No response $2,431,276 (San Diego County) San Diego Unified $11,485,060 $1,493,144 $12,978,204 San Juan Unified $190,402 $405,967 $596,369 (Sacramento County) Santa Ana Unified $6,716,704 $3,433,552 $10,150,256 (Orange County) GRAND TOTAL $78,457,328 $20,252,213 $98,709,541 4

7 In fiscal year 2009, 12 of the state s 967 school districts (as of the school year) spent a total of $29.5 million on verdicts, settlements and attorneys contracted by these districts. Table 2: Litigation Costs by District, District Outside Counsel Costs Settlements and Jury Capistrano Unified (Orange County) Elk Grove Unified (Sacramento County) Total $1,841,202 $0 $1,841,202 $1,520,547 No response $1,520,547 Fresno Unified $1,724,378 $189,892 $1,914,270 Kern High School $712,413 $500 $712,913 Long Beach Unified $3,372,821 $0 $3,372,821 (LA County) Los Angeles Unified $8,345,580 $5,210,732 $13,556,312 Merced Unified High $331,368 $0 $331,368 School Modesto City $191,206 $214,145 $405,351 (Stanislaus County) Poway Unified $398,496 No response $398,496 (San Diego County) San Diego $2,536,828 $345,260 $2,882,087 San Juan Unified $103,984 $187,627 $291,611 (Sacramento County) Santa Ana Unified $1,837,156 $454,552 $2,291,708 (Orange County) GRAND TOTAL $22,915,979 $6,602,708 $29,518,686 While staggering on their own, these figures do not include the additional millions paid by some schools throughout the state for liability insurance. Seeing figures in the millions is enough to raise a few eyebrows. But to put some of these costs into greater perspective, consider the following: Approximately 2,500 Los Angeles United School District teachers and other school employees are currently facing layoffs. Based on the average annual teacher s salary, nearly 10 percent or 204 of those positions could have been funded with the $8.3 million the district spent on outside counsel and the $5.2 million on settlements and jury awards in FY

8 In Long Beach Unified School District, $2.6 million was cut by increasing the classroom size in sixth to twelfth grade. Another $685,084 was cut by eliminating evening high school. The district spent that much, a combined $3.3 million, on outside counsel costs alone in FY Elk Grove Unified School District spent $1.5 million on outside counsel costs in FY while cutting an equal amount of funding from the budget by eliminating class size reduction in 9 th grade English and Math, 10 th grade counseling, and home-to-school transportation for middle and high school students. 6

9 Discussion The current economic recession, the worst of our generation, is putting intense pressure on spending across the state. As budgets are being cut, our children are being short-changed. At a time when teachers are being laid off, classroom sizes are increasing and services for students are being stripped, every dollar spent outside the classroom should be scrutinized. This report outlines millions of dollars being spent by school districts that deserve a second look. To be clear, many lawsuits against school districts are justified. But abusive lawsuits those filed to pursue greed, not justice create problems for our justice system, for our students and for the public. The amount spent on these lawsuits could have funded much needed items for our state s schools, such as supplies, student services and teachers salaries, to name a few. For example, with the amount spent on litigation-related costs in : Fresno Unified School District could have purchased a $70 textbook for nearly 40 percent of its more than 73,000 students. 6 Litigation costs in Kern High School District, which has resorted to auctions and recycling to raise cash for its general fund, 7 equate to $21.30 per student. That number may sound inconsequential, but to the district s 22,409 students eligible in 2009 for free or reduced price lunch, those dollars likely mean a lot. 8 San Juan Unified School District could have purchased 20,829 SanDisk Cruzer 8 GB USB Flash Drives. Merced Union High School District could have reduced its teaching layoffs by 20 percent. 9 Capistrano Unified School District could have prevented the $1.5 million budget cut to buy core textbooks Fresno Unified School District, About Us <http://www.fresno.k12.ca.us/about.html> accessed August 1, The Bakersfield Californian, May 10, As of October 2009, as reported by the California Department of Education <http://www.cde.ca.gov/ds/sh/cw/filesafdc.asp> accessed August 1, According to the Merced Sun-Star, the district cut twenty-two teaching positions at one of its schools. Teachers in the district make, on average, $62, Capistrano Unified School District 2009/2010 Budget Adjustments & Reductions, listed as approved on April 13,

10 In addition to these financial impacts, there are other ramifications to schools and students as well. Some common schoolyard games are now prohibited for fear of liability. Play structures are being modified with the goal of avoiding litigation rather than providing children a fun place to play and exercise. The number of obese children is growing, while schools are forced to cut back on physical activities. Litigation also impacts the way students are taught. Much like doctors who are forced to practice defensive medicine, teachers and administrators are influenced by liability concerns when their sole focus should be on the kids in the classroom. Finally, when personal injury lawyers pursue abusive lawsuits against schools, they not only rob students of money that could be better spent in the classroom, but they also teach them that personal gain is more important than personal responsibility. What message are we sending our students when we tell them they can no longer be bused to sporting events and field trips because it costs too much? Meanwhile, a school district must pay $11,000 to settle a lawsuit over a young child, left unsupervised by his parent, who was injured while climbing a school fence. 11 Reportedly, the fear of injury (and, implicitly, the legal liability that would impose on the school systems) is the reason for the ban. The school's concerns may be real enough, but they nonetheless comprise a sad commentary on our society and our efforts to combat obesity in children. Ban on Tag, Other Activities Makes Anti-Obesity Effort Ring Hollow Portland Press Herald Legal fear has infected the culture of our schools and influences decisions made by school officials. Jerry Wartgow Rocky Mountain News Personal injury lawyers encourage people to sue anyone over anything, eroding the concept of personal responsibility in this country. Today, when accidents happen, the reaction is to place blame and file a lawsuit hoping to hit the lawsuit lottery. We laugh at ridiculous lawsuits, but there is nothing funny about their impact on our society. Every time someone collects money for a ridiculous lawsuit, it encourages 11 McCarthy, Ryan. MJUSD settles injury lawsuit. Appeal Democrat, September 5,

11 the filing of more frivolous lawsuits. And we all end up paying the price. When those suits are filed against school districts, California students become victims of lawsuit abuse. School districts have taken multiple approaches to reduce the impact of litigation on their budgets. Some have purchased liability insurance, whereby they pay a premium to an insurance company, which investigates claims against the district and determines whether any settlement is warranted. Others have put into place aggressive risk management programs. Still more have taken to fight questionable claims to discourage repeat offenders. While these measures are to be applauded, they do not address the root of the problem. We have a legal system that not only allows, but practically invites abusive litigation. We will not see meaningful change until we undertake action at every level. Personal responsibility lies with each of us. By taking responsibility for our own actions and demanding reform at every level, we can all do our part to give lawsuit abuse a failing grade, and protect its youngest victims. 9

12 Appendix Capistrano Unified School District Outside Counsel Costs Settlements and Jury TOTAL FY $1,700, $0.00 $1,700, FY $1,475, $0.00 $1,475, FY $1,841, $0.00 $1,841, TOTAL $5,017, $0.00 $5,017, Elk Grove Unified School District Outside Counsel Costs Settlements and Jury TOTAL FY $979, No Response $979, FY $1,468, No Response $1,468, FY $1,520, No Response $1,520, TOTAL $3,968, N/A $3,968, Fresno Unified School District Outside Counsel Costs Settlements and Jury TOTAL FY $1,133, $558, $1,692, FY $1,005, $198, $1,204, FY $1,724, $189, $1,914, TOTAL $3,863, $947, $4,810, Kern High School District Outside Counsel Costs Settlements and Jury TOTAL FY $601, $0.00 $601, FY $ $0.00 $693, FY $712, $0.00 $712, TOTAL $2,007, $0.00 $2,007,

13 Long Beach Unified School District Outside Counsel Costs Settlements and Jury TOTAL FY $3,229, $0.00 $3,229, FY $2,822, $0.00 $2,822, FY $3,372, $0.00 $3,372, TOTAL $9,425, $0.00 $9,425, Los Angeles Unified School District Outside Counsel Settlements and Jury TOTAL Costs* FY $12,200, $5,471, $17,671, FY $11,001, $2,459, $13,461, FY $8,345, $5,210, $13,556, TOTAL $31,547, $13,141, $44,688, *Excludes bond funding related legal expenses Merced Union High School District Outside Counsel Costs Settlements and Jury TOTAL FY $321, $0.00 $321, FY $251, $0.00 $251, FY $311, $0.00 $311, TOTAL $884, $0.00 $884, Modesto City Schools Outside Counsel Costs Settlements and Jury TOTAL FY $388, $292, $680, FY $341, $40, $381, FY $191, $214, $405, TOTAL $920, $ $1,467,

14 Poway Unified School District Outside Counsel Costs Settlements and Jury TOTAL FY $1,558, No Response $1,558, FY $474, No Response $474, FY $398, No Response $398, TOTAL $2,431, N/A $2,431, San Diego Unified School District Outside Counsel Settlements and Jury TOTAL Costs FY $4,188, $741, $4,929, FY $4,760, $406, $5,166, FY $2,536, $345, $2,882, TOTAL $11,485, $1,493, $12,978, San Juan Unified School District Outside Counsel Settlements and Jury TOTAL Costs FY $37, $69, $107, FY $48, $148, $197, FY $103, $187, $291, TOTAL $190, $405, $596, Santa Ana Unified School District Outside Counsel Settlements and Jury TOTAL Costs FY $2,742, $1,106, $3,849, FY $2,137, $1,872, $4,009, FY $1,837, $454, $2,291, TOTAL $6,716, $3,433, $10,150,

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