Appeals court affirms decision to toss Laguna Beach USD board member’s discrimination complaint

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School board member Dee Perry (right) debates then board clerk Carol Normandin at a Board of Education meeting on Feb. 13, 2020. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

A Laguna Beach Unified School District board member’s complaint of retaliation and discrimination by district leaders was recently thrown out of a federal appellate court.

The three-judge panel with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the trial judge’s decision, holding the complaint filed by board member Dee Perry was properly dismissed under the Eleventh Amendment’s protection of state agencies from lawsuits in federal court.

“The district court properly dismissed Perry’s claim against Superintendent Viloria because her complaint alleged only that Viloria ratified the other Defendants’ actions and not that he has individual authority to act on his own,” the appellate panel wrote.

As a matter of law, Perry can still ask for the full Ninth Circuit to hear her case.

The turmoil in Laguna Beach Unified started in December 2018 when the board passed Perry over for appointment as board president after she served as clerk. Perry had publicly shared a letter from the school district’s attorney, Mark Bresee, which Bresee said included a confidential legal opinion. The retired teacher’s fellow school board members later admonished her and created a controversial subcommittee to privately discuss the matter.

Perry originally filed her lawsuit in December 2019 and was given two chances to amend her complaint by U.S. District Court Judge James V. Selna.

Perry hasn’t decided whether she plans to drop her case.

“Facts speak louder than a spin,” Perry said in a prepared statement. “I never stopped advocating the Board was trying to silence, despite the intimidation tactics. It was the Board that abandoned its actions to silence me to prevent the court from ruling on the real issues. I saw the case through not for myself but for future board members, and it was a success because next time the Board won’t be able to hide behind state immunity if it ever repeats that same abuse of power.”

“Moving forward we hope member Perry will adhere to Board Bylaws regarding confidentiality and keep all confidential information secure to regain our trust and debate policy and issues with her members and not the courts,” Board President Carol Normandin said in a press release Wednesday.

The district has declined to provide a full accounting of its legal costs in this case. A district spokesperson said the legal invoices are privileged information, citing state law exempting documents pertaining to litigation until the claim is finally adjudicated or otherwise settled.

“We do not know when the process will be completed,” said Shelley Spessard, public information officer for the Laguna Beach Unified School District.

In September 2020, the school board voted 4-0 with Perry abstaining, to double its do-not-exceed limit to $200,000 for legal services contract with Rutan & Tucker LLP through July 30, 2022.

Last July, the school board quietly adopted a new board policy adding the public information officer as one of three officials authorized to provide comments to the press in addition to the board president and superintendent. The Superintendent can authorize other board members and staff to speak to the press on a case-by-case basis.

In light of this amended policy, the community only hears from school board members during its hybrid meetings held at Thurston Middle School and streamed via Zoom due to COVID-19 concerns.

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