NEWARK, Calif. (AP) — A school district in Northern California will pay out $200,000 to settle a lawsuit stemming from its handling of a public records request more than six years ago, district officials said.
The settlement puts to rest a costly legal battle for Newark Unified School District that started in 2014 when the district decided to sue Elizabeth Brazil, a resident who refused to return public records the district inadvertently released to her. Brazil later sued the district claiming it violated the California Public Records Act, the Mercury News reported Thursday.
The settlement, which will be paid to Brazil’s attorney Paul Nicholas Boylan, was approved Nov. 19 by the school district board.
The legal case began after the district released thousands of documents to Brazil and others during the lead-up to an election at tumultuous time when some residents were blaming board members for pushing former superintendent Dave Marken out of the district.
But just hours after the release, the district claimed some of the documents, including emails, had not been reviewed properly and contained sensitive information subject to attorney-client privilege, and asked that they be returned.
When Brazil refused, the school district sued to force her to return the records, and initially lost in Alameda County Superior Court. When the district appealed the decision, a state judge reversed the lower court decision and ordered the two sides to continue litigating the issue of what documents were owed to her.
The district then tried to force Brazil to pay their legal fees under the California Public Records Act. In an April 2018 ruling, an Alameda County Superior Court judge denied the district’s bid for fees.
As a result of the school district’s actions, a bill was signed into California law in 2019 to ensure no public agency could ever again try to “shift attorney costs onto the public records requesters” unless it is a frivolous request.
From August 2014 through October 2017, attorneys from the Lozano Smith firm said the district owed them about $225,000 for their legal work, according to a court filing from 2018. But the firm tried to persuade the court it should be paid $449,000 by the district because of their “outstanding results.”
The total costs to the district stemming from its 2014 decision to sue Brazil were not immediately clear, district officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment, the newspaper reported.
Brazil filed her own lawsuit against the district in 2017 claiming it was still withholding records she was owed. Boylan said this week that as the case proceeded, they were able to negotiate the release of most of the records the district originally tried to keep under wraps.
Boylan said in his view, all the documents that the school officials originally claimed as privileged didn’t actually contain anything that would have “disadvantaged” the district.
“The real mystery here is why the district decided to litigate this at all, ” he said.
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