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J.R. v. Lakeport Unified School District

United States District Court, N.D. California

November 21, 2019

J.R., a minor, by and through her parent and Guardian ad Litem, S. RINGER, and O.G., a minor, by and through his parent and Guardian ad Litem, A. VALDENEGRO, Plaintiffs,
v.
LAKEPORT UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT; KELSEYVILLE UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT; and DOES 1 through 50, inclusive, Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING PETITIONS FOR SETTLEMENT OF MINORS' CLAIMS

          WILLIAM ALSUP UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         INTRODUCTION

         Two minor plaintiffs petition through their guardians ad litem for their settlements to be approved. To the extent stated herein, plaintiffs' petitions are Granted.

         STATEMENT

         This case stems from the sexual assault of two minors. Prior orders have detailed the facts alleged in the complaint (Dkt. Nos. 53, 62). In brief, a student with a history of severe behavioral problems, “Bully, ” sexually assaulted a student with special needs, plaintiff O.G., repeatedly at a middle school in the Lakeport Unified School District. Plaintiff O.G.'s mother informed the school of the assault, removed plaintiff O.G. from the school, and placed plaintiff O.G. in a different middle school in the Kelseyville Unified School District. Plaintiff O.G.'s mother allegedly told the school in Kelseyville the reason plaintiff O.G. had transferred and the name of Bully from Lakeport. Plaintiff O.G. thrived in his new school. The following year, Bully sexually assaulted plaintiff J.R. in Lakeport. The school suspended Bully. He then eventually transferred to the same school in Kelseyville where plaintiff O.G. attended. Bully taunted and again sexually assaulted plaintiff O.G.

         This lawsuit followed. Through their guardians ad litem, plaintiffs O.G. and J.R. initiated this lawsuit on August 24, 2017, in state court in the County of Lake. In October 2018, defendant Kelseyville Unified School District removed here (Dkt. No. 1). Following Rule 12 practice, an order stayed plaintiffs' state law claims because a legal question existed as to whether plaintiffs' state law claims would be barred under Big Oak Flat-Groveland Unified School District v. Superior Court, 21 Cal.App. 5th 403 (2018), vacated with direction to reconsider, 444 P.3d 665 (Cal. 2019). In brief, the California Court of Appeal will determine whether plaintiffs were required to comply with Lakeport Unified School District's claim presentation requirement pursuant to Section 935(a) of the California Government Code prior to filing suit. If the California Court of Appeal answers this question in the affirmative, plaintiffs' state law claims will be barred.

         Only one federal claim survived Rule 12 practice, a claim under Title IX alleged against both Kelseyville and Lakeport Unified School Districts.

         The parties have now settled all claims. Plaintiff J.R. has filed a petition for approval to receive $25, 000 from defendant Lakeport and zero dollars from defendant Kelseyville (J.R. never attended any school in Kelseyville). Plaintiff O.G. has filed a petition for approval to receive $50, 000 from defendant Lakeport and $60, 000 from defendant Kelseyville. Plaintiff O.G.'s guardian ad litem, A. Valdenegro, further requests that $17, 553 of plaintiff O.G.'s settlement recovery be given directly to her “to assist [p]laintiff O.G. with educational endeavors and developmental disabilities” (Dkt. No. 98 at 5). Plaintiffs' counsel also seek 25% of each settlement plus expenses. After attorney's fees and expenses, the total net recovery for plaintiff J.R. is $18, 209.43; the total net recovery for plaintiff O.G. is $81, 939.62. This order follows briefing, supplemental submissions, and oral argument.

         ANALYSIS

         When a plaintiff under eighteen settles federal claims, a district court must “ ‘conduct its own inquiry to determine whether the settlement serves the best interests of the minor.' ” Robidoux v. Rosengren, 638 F.3d 1177, 1181 (9th Cir. 2011) (quoting Dacanay v. Mendoza, 573 F.2d 1075, 1080 (9th Cir. 1978)). The district judge must “limit the scope of their review to the question whether the net amount distributed to each minor plaintiff in the settlement is fair and reasonable, in light of the facts of the case, the minor's specific claim, and recovery in similar cases.” Id. at 1081-82. Importantly, the district judge should “evaluate the fairness of each minor plaintiff's net recovery without regard to the proportion of the total settlement value designated for adult co-plaintiffs or plaintiffs' counsel - whose interests the district court has no special duty to safeguard.” Id. at 1182 (citing Dacanay, 573 F.2d at 1078). This holding is expressly limited to federal claims. Id. at 1179 n.2.

         Both federal and state law claims are proposed for settlement here. Our court of appeals has never decided how such a mishmash of claims should be resolved. Other judges in this district have taken the claims together and applied the standard for federal claims. See, e.g., Parenti v. Cty. of Monterey, No. 14-cv-05481-BLF, 2019 WL 1245145 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 18, 2019) (Judge Beth Labson Freeman); Doe ex rel. Scott v. Gill, Nos. C 11-4759, 11-5009, 11-5083 CW, 2012 WL 1939612 (N.D. Cal. May 29, 2012) (Judge Claudia Wilken). This order applies the aforementioned standard to all claims.

         This order finds that the proposed settlements are adequate because of the significant risk that there will be no recovery in this case. First, the state law claims remain stayed because plaintiffs' state law claims may yet be barred completely. The risk that plaintiffs will never recover on these claims remains. Second, as to the lone federal claim at issue here, under Title IX, plaintiffs must show that defendants had actual knowledge and acted with deliberate indifference. These elements will be hard to prove on the facts herein, if the parties are to be believed. These representations will now be shown in detail.

         1. Plaintiff J.R.

         Plaintiff J.R. admitted in deposition that Bully never said anything sexual or profane to her. He would sometimes hug her, but she never reported any of these hugs. Five times, Bully's hand briefly brushed against her bottom when he walked behind her. Bully also rubbed his fist on the top of J.R.'s head approximately five times during science class. Once, Bully's hand brushed across J.R.'s breasts as the two of them walked past each other. J.R. advised the school of the brush against her breast, the school suspended Bully, and he never returned to school with J.R. She has ...


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