Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect Bullis Charter School attorney Arturo Gonzalez' clarification that a separate appeal on the $51,000 sanction has not yet been decided, and may not be for a while. It also includes the perspective of LASD attorney Ray Cardozo on the appellate court's action.
A state appeals court denied two legal actions Thursday that had been brought by Bullis Charter School (BCS) in its effort to recover $1.3 million in attorneys' fees from the Los Altos School District.
The Sixth District Court of Appeal denied a writ of mandate BCS had requested, asking the higher court to overturn a discovery order and to compel BCS to turn over discovery documents.
It also denied a request for a stay of that discovery order.
Details were slender, but both BCS and the Los Altos School District confirmed that the appeals court had turned down both of BCS’ petitions.
“We realize only about 5 percent of such requests are granted,” said BCS board member John Phelps of the appeals court decision. “So that it was declined was disappointing, but not surprising.”
He added, “We will abide by it.”
BCS may yet avoid paying the sanction. It has a parallel action that was filed last month because parties are allowed an appeal on sanctions, attorney Arturo Gonzalez said. That separate notice of appeal has not yet been scheduled for attorneys to file opening briefs, and may not be for a year, he said.
Thursday's denials from the court, however, meant BCS would have with Judge Lucas' November order. LASD had responded to BCS’ demand for attorneys' fees by questioning who was paying for the litigation and who would benefit. BCS had responded that the questions were intrusive and violated privacy rights. After conducting meet-and-confer sessions in which the school district eliminated requests for names and significantly scaled back its questions to what were the top 25 donation amounts and in what categories—parent, community member, etc.—the donors fell, Judge Lucas had ordered BCS to comply with discovery. And she granted sanctions to compel action by the middle of December.
In the second, the court rejected any suspension of the discovery.
By issuing summary denials of both—and so quickly after they were filed on Nov. 21—indicated the appeals court did not think Judge Lucas' order needed review, said LASD attorney Ray Cardozo.
BCS chairman Ken Moore, who had predicted BCS’ arguments would receive a more sympathetic hearing in the appeals court, was traveling and not available for comment. Phelps downplayed the decisions.
BCS’ overarching goal is to obtain a permanent solution to its right to reasonably equivalent facilities, he said, a goal helped last year by the Sixth District’s decision ordering LASD to provide such facilities and to improve its methodology for calculating space. BCS' recent legal petitions were made to seek "clarity" in a narrow aspect of its efforts to recover the $1.3 million in attorneys’ fees, he said.
Acknowledging that LASD’s questions had been scaled back during the meet-and-confer sessions enough to satisfy Judge Lucas, Phelps said BCS believed that even “a little bit of information can be reconstructed and we wanted to make sure we had exhausted the effort to protect the privacy of people.”
But Noah Mesel, a LASD parent and founder of the Huttlinger Alliance for Education, a group representing more than 1,000 LASD parent interests, said it appeared the the Court of Appeal had "decided that Judge Lucas got it right on the order compelling discovery and on the sanctions."
Such a result is no surprise, said Mark Boennighausen, another parent who is also a lawyer, since "Judge Lucas is an experienced and widely respected trial court judge."
Mesel said the Court of Appeal had learned that “BCS's lawyer had the audacity to scoff at Judge Lucas's $51,000 sanction order,” telling a newspaper reporter …"that the monetary penalty was ‘Monopoly money' that LASD would never see."
School Board President Doug Smith said he was glad the district had prevailed, and pointed out that it has prevailed in several of the court actions brought by BCS over the last several months.
“I would hope that everybody would look at this and realize the courts are not going to order a radically different course of action,” Smith said.
“Given the rulings, if we want a different outcome, we're going to have do direct energies toward dialogue instead of the litigation.”
Check back with Patch for updates on this story as we get further details.