Judge dismisses Perry’s retaliation lawsuit against Laguna Beach USD

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Dee Perry is a member of the Board of Education for the Laguna Beach Unified School District. File Photo

A California federal judge dismissed a lawsuit Thursday filed by a Laguna Beach Unified school board member who claimed she was retaliated against by fellow school leaders, according to court records.

U.S. District Court Judge James Selna dismissed with prejudice the complaint filed by Board member Dee Perry in December 2019. Selna had given Perry’s attorney three opportunities to amend her complaint to provide additional details of how she was mistreated. Those attempts were unsuccessful.

“The Court fails to see how amendment could cure this defect and therefore finds that amendment would be futile,” Selna wrote in the order.

Perry is allowed 30 days under federal law to file an appeal. Her attorney did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday afternoon.

Selna held that Perry’s fellow school board members were immune from the alleged claims under the 11th Amendment, which extends to individual defendants acting in their official capacity for state agencies.

Perry’s attorneys argued in her latest request for a hearing that this ruling cannot be correct because it would result in there being no individual defendant whom Perry could sue.

“Moreover, if the buck does not stop with the individual members of the District’s Board of Education for violations of law concerning the Board’s governance because of the District’s bylaws’ unilateral disclaimer of individual authority, with whom does the buck stop?” Perry’s Attorney Maria Severson wrote in a legal brief.

This argument did not persuade the judge.

“[T]his result is correct here because the Board members only have authority through a legislative body that acts through majority vote,” Selna wrote.

Selna’s decision was welcomed by Laguna Beach Unified’s administration.

“The Court has affirmed our position for the third time that the Board operates as an entity, and no board member has individual authority,” Board President Peggy Wolff said in a prepared statement. “It is unfortunate that Ms. Perry chose to perpetuate her unnecessary complaint for over a year, needlessly diverting resources from the District’s students, while she publicly complains about the District’s increased legal fees.”

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. Last year, Perry 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’s attorney issued a notice of intent to file a lawsuit on behalf of her client last June, challenging three actions by the board, including the decision to keep her off the subcommittee and publicly accusing her of misconduct. Perry claimed the statements made in the decision-making process were defamatory, discriminatory, and violated her rights

After private negotiations with the school district’s attorneys failed to cure her concerns, Perry filed a legal complaint in California federal court in December 2019.

Perry’s supporters and the school board majority have traded jabs over the cases rising legal costs.

Jeff Dixon, assistant superintendent of business services, said at the May 21 board meeting that  Rutan and Tucker LLP had come within $5,000 of reaching the $100,000 not-to-exceed limit of its contract to defend the school district in Perry’s case. The school board voted 4-0 at that meeting, with Perry abstaining, to double this limit to $200,000 for legal services through July 30, 2022.

The district declined to provide a full accounting of its legal costs in this case until after Perry’s deadline to file an appeal.

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