The Poway Unified School District has incurred more than $164,000 in legal costs defending two board members sued in their social media blocking case — and fees continue to rise with the matter under appeal.
The Artiano Shinoff firm represents school trustees T.J. Zane and Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff, who lost a bench trial in September and filed an appeal Feb. 12.
Last week, a federal judge denied a motion by plaintiffs attorney Cory Briggs, who asked for as much as $400,000 in legal fees. Judge Roger T. Benitez said Briggs could refile the request after the appeal is concluded.
The Poway district says it has paid the San Diego law firm employing Daniel R. Shinoff, Jack M. Sleeth Jr., Jesse Benjamin Basel and Michelle Maruja Pacis nearly $98,000 for their work since March 2018.
At its March 11 meeting, the board is expected to OK an additional $66,000 in legal payments.
In January 2018, plaintiffs Christopher and Kimberly Garnier dropped the school district itself as a defendant.
“[Briggs] dismissed the district when we made the 11th Amendment objection,” said Sleeth, an attorney for the school board members. “He knew we would win if he forced a motion, so he just dismissed.”
Sleeth said case law holds that a California school district is an arm of the state for 11th Amendment purposes, and the 11th Amendment forbids a lawsuit against the state by a citizen of the same state in federal court, with a few exceptions.
Briggs — who recently lost a race for San Diego city attorney — was hired in 2017 by the Garniers, a married couple, after Zane and O’Connor-Ratcliff blocked them from posting comments on the trustees’ Twitter and Facebook pages.
The court’s ruling in favor of the Garniers came Jan. 15, and Briggs filed a motion Jan. 28 for “a reasonable $283,832” in attorneys fees multiplied by 1.5 for having taken the case on a contingency basis.
Sleeth is no stranger to controversial cases involving Poway schools.
In 2011, he successfully defended the district against a lawsuit by Westview High School math teacher Bradley Johnson, who posted banners in his classroom saying: “In God We Trust,” “One Nation Under God,” “God Bless America” and “God Sheds his Grace On Thee.”
Judge Benitez oversaw the case in San Diego federal court — ordering the district to let Johnson put the banners back up. But in a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the district was right to remove the banners.
As The San Diego Union-Tribune reported, appeals court Judge Richard C. Tallman wrote the school district was within its rights to order Johnson to remove the banners.
“Just as the Constitution would not protect Johnson were he to decide that he no longer wished to teach math at all, preferring to discuss Shakespeare rather than Newton, it does not permit him to speak as freely at work in his role as a teacher about his views on God, our Nation’s history, or God’s role in our Nation’s history as he might on a sidewalk, in a park, at his dinner table, or in countless other locations,” Tallman wrote.
In another case involving the Garniers, the Poway school district spent at least $268,407 in legal fees associated with a Chris Garnier restraining order and a wrongful termination lawsuit he filed over losing his assistant coaching position at Rancho Bernardo High School, the U-T reported in 2016.