Judge Tosses Perry’s Complaint, Gives Her 30 Days to Detail Claims Against LBUSD

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

A Laguna Beach school board member recently suffered a setback in California federal court when the presiding judge tossed her complaint that the superintendent and fellow board members violated her first amendment rights and engaged in illegal retaliation.

U.S. District Court Judge James V. Selna dismissed without prejudice March 18 the complaint filed by Dee Perry, writing that her current complaint didn’t give adequate facts to survive a motion by the Laguna Beach Unified School District, according to the court order.

“Perry alleges for example, that she ‘has always spoken… on behalf of the best interest of her constituents’ and that she has made critical public comments but the Complaint does not detail any specific statements or comments she made,” Selna wrote. “Without this information, the Court is ill-equipped to adjudicate Perry’s claims.”

If she wishes to continue her legal challenge, Perry has 30 days after the March 18 order to file an amended complaint, Selna wrote.

“We are pleased with the Court’s determination and look forward to working together as a governing body of five on behalf of District students, especially during these challenging times,” Board President Peggy Wolff said in a prepared statement Wednesday.

Perry’s lawyer, Maria Severson, told the Daily Pilot Wednesday that her client will amend her complaint to provide “instances of harassment” by fellow board members.

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 in June.

Perry’s attorney issued a notice of intent to file a lawsuit on behalf of her client on June 26, 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. The school district denied the allegations in their response to the court.

The case is still active with a final pre-trial conference set for Nov. 2 and a jury trial scheduled for Dec. 8 at the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and Courthouse in Santa Ana.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. This headline and the article are objectively accurate. I take no issue with that.

    But in an admittedly subjective sense it seems to me the Perry case was not so much “tossed” as, to borrow a well-known USPS metaphor “returned to sender,” with directions to repackage the content.

    The School Board has unlimited funds and litigation insurance coverage, an aggressive high powered law firm, all paid for by taxpayers. The Board has decided to litigate instead of settle the case, even though Perry sought mediation and settlement.

    As an experienced claims settlement negotiator, I believe a settlement would have been simple and easy, if the Board were directing its staff and lawyers instead of vice versa.

    Perry is a single civil rights claimant seeking judicial oversight of Board actions preventing her from giving her constituents equal representation on the Board. It is a credit to Perry and the lawyers who have agreed to help her that her case was not truly “tossed” as demanded by the Board lawyers, which would have meant dismissal with prejudice to her claims. If the court had decided there was no case, that would have been it, over and done.

    A dismissal without prejudice is not as common, and it means neither of the party’s got what they were asking. Instead, the first round was not scored for either side, instead of closing the courthouse door the door is still open, and Perry can come back in and pick up where she left off with the benefit of the court’s direction that she and her lawyers augment and provide more evidence so the court can rule fairly based on a more complete record.

    That can go the Board’s way or Perry’s way, just as it could have in the first round. This is status quo ante. Instead of a triumphal statement written by lawyers and treating the court’s decision to allow the case to continue as a determination ending case, the Board President should have considered leaving open the possibility of a settlement, since neither side really knows which way the court will go one it has the additional evidence requested.

    If the School Board President really meant it when she invoked the “challenging times” and need for the Board to work together, then a settlement would save time, energy and resources that can be directed to other purposes. Perry has more incentive to settle then anyone, but a Board not wiling to live within the limits of secrecy powers under exceptions to open meeting laws is not itself meeting the challenges of governing competently – in an emergency more than ever. Perry is doing students and families a service by not enabling abuse of secrecy.

    The Board should consider giving reconciliation a chance, if settlement cannot be accomplished, then the case moves to the next phase. The Board President’s statement leaves Perry no option other than to seek court intervention, or accept less than equal representation under threat of exclusion from exclusion if she disagrees with abuse of secrecy powers as allows by law.

  2. Thank you Howard, for your comment. I will only add that the City’s law firm of Ruttan & Tucker, who is also defending the Board in this suit, is notoriously known for making opponents bleed financially to end or settle lawsuits by residents. They will use tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars, basically unlimited funds, which our city and school board so willing throw at them (cuz it isn’t their money), to bury opponents with every trick in the book, legitimate or not. It takes a plaintiff with deep pockets or a very generous law firm who who is willing to do some of the legal work pro-bono to fight the good fight against corruption and enforce your rights against our government. Sole exception seems to be the ACLU, where the city just rolls over and we the taxpayers get saddled with bad settlements costing of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, the law firm of Ruttan & Tucker trucks on, laughing all the way to the bank, with our taxpayer dollars. Time to end that cozy 30 year relationship, time for a new firm and competitive bidding process. Good luck Dee Perry, hang in there.

  3. LBUSD and particularly this Superintendent and School Board use bullying, intimidation and threats to students and parents alike using costly legal retribution if the traditional threat of inflicting permanent harm to a students future does not get the trick done.
    3 years and $100’s of thousands of tax dollars spent and Jason Viloria and LBUSD was found by the Cailfornia Superior Court to have “abused their discretion ” ” with NO statutory authority “.
    Then on a 3-0 APPEAL with more of our tax dollars being wasted the decision was upheld. No expense is to great to cover their bad and incompetent behavior.
    Then after losing the case the School Board renews the contract of the same law firm that guided them down this path without any review.
    This all takes place while hiring a different law firm for $100k to go after one of their own.
    It is our taxes they spend freely and in secret with secret meeting with NO accountability or over-site.
    Just try and get the financial statements on legal expenditures and settlements during this Superintendents and School Boards tenure and you will be met with a wall of secrecy, deflection and stalling.
    As long as the citizens of Laguna Beach put up with this, things will NEVER change.

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