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Visalia Unified School District v. Superior Court (Natalie Harlan)

California Court of Appeals, Fifth District

December 17, 2019

VISALIA UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT, Petitioner,
v.
THE SUPERIOR COURT OF TULARE COUNTY, Respondent NATALIE HARLAN, Real Party in Interest.

          ORIGINAL PROCEEDINGS; petition for a writ of mandate to challenge an order of the Superior Court of Tulare County, No. 271531 Bret D. Hillman, Judge.

          McCormick, Barstow, Sheppard, Wayte & Carruth, Steven M. McQuillan, Todd W. Baxter and Laura A. Wolfe for Petitioner.

         No appearance for Respondent.

          Todd B. Barsotti and Peter Sean Bradley for Real Party in Interest.

          OPINION

          SNAUFFER, J.

         Real party in interest, Natalie Harlan, filed suit against petitioner Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) and two individual defendants for, inter alia, retaliation in violation of the Reporting by School Employees of Improper Governmental Activities Act (Ed. Code, §§ 44110-44114; hereafter the “Act”).[1] In addition to compensatory damages, Harlan seeks punitive damages against all three defendants under section 44114, subdivision (c), which allows for the award of punitive damages against “person[s]”-as that term is defined by section 44112, subdivision (d)-whose acts are proven to be malicious.

         VUSD moved to strike the punitive damage allegations from the complaint as to VUSD on the ground that it, as a public entity, is immune from the imposition of punitive damages under Government Code section 818. The trial court denied the motion, holding that the Act supersedes Government Code section 818.

         This petition for a writ of mandate requires us to determine whether punitive damages may be imposed against school districts sued under the Act. We hold Government Code section 818 prohibits the imposition of punitive damages against school districts sued under the Act, and the trial court therefore erred in denying the motion to strike the punitive damage allegations as to VUSD from the complaint. Accordingly, we direct the trial court to strike the punitive damage allegations as to VUSD from the complaint.

         BACKGROUND

         Natalie Harlan was a special education program manager for VUSD before losing her job in 2017. She claims she lost her job because she refused instructions from Cara Peterson, a co-director of special education, to backdate certain documents. Harlan reported the issue to Kim Paz, another co-director of special education, and was thereafter notified that VUSD was not going to re-elect her to her position as a special education program manager for the next school year. Her last day of employment was approximately June 23, 2017.

         On October 20, 2017, Harlan filed a complaint in Tulare County Superior Court against VUSD, Paz, and Peterson for retaliation in violation of the Act and other causes of action. In addition to compensatory damages, Harlan's complaint seeks punitive damages against all three defendants under section 44114, subdivision (c).

         The Act

         Section 44113, subdivision (a) prohibits a public school employee from using his or her official authority or influence to retaliate against “any person for the purpose of interfering with the right of that person” to make an Act-protected disclosure.[2] An offended party may sue a public school employee who violates subdivision (a) for civil damages. (§ 44113, subd. (b).).

         Section 44114, subdivision (c) provides that, in addition to compensatory damages, “[a] person who intentionally engages in acts of … retaliation …” shall be liable for punitive damages if his or her acts are malicious.[3] A “person, ” for purposes of the Act, includes “any state or local government, or any agency or instrumentality of any of the foregoing.” (§ 44112, subd. (d).)

         The Motion to Strike

         On December 13, 2017, all three defendants filed a motion to strike the claim for punitive damages.[4] VUSD claimed punitive damages were barred against it under Government Code section 818, which provides: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a public entity is not liable for damages awarded under Section 3294 of the Civil Code or other ...


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