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Should Mt. Diablo school district appeal $1,085 small claims judgment?

By Theresa Harrington
Wednesday, January 4th, 2012 at 1:10 am in Education, Mt. Diablo school district.

After A.J. Fardella learned that the Mt. Diablo school district planned to appeal a small claims judgment for $1,085 based on a lawsuit alleging the district was negligent when a substitute bus driver dropped off his daughter at the wrong spot, Fardella sent the following email to the school board:

“Sent: Sat 12/31/2011 10:09 AM

Subject: Message to MDUSD School Board Regarding School Bussing Nuisance/Negligence Case

Esteemed Board Members,

I was appalled to see that the Mount Diablo School District has decided to appeal a judgment of $1,085, which was compensation for the Transportation Department’s losing my five year old daughter on October 5th of 2010. The District has decided to fight this battle using a partner of outside counsel, Crosby and Rowell, the firm is notably a contributor to the Measure C campaign. Strangely, this case never appeared on the District’s meeting agendas for closed session, as all pending litigation is required to be. Is this then a unilateral action on the part of General Counsel Rolen?

In order to conduct this appeal, the District will be paying legal fees that far exceed the negligible judgment amount. As this is a trial de novo, the District will be using school district resources and witnesses, as they already did in the last TWO hearings on this matter. The District’s General Counsel, Greg Rolen, was ALREADY in court on two days in excess of five hours. Isn’t he the District employee who is supposed to be running your transportation department, which is the essence of this suit? As court records submitted by Rolen on behalf of the District, point out Rolen himself conducted the investigation of the incident in question. This is an obvious conflict of interest, and against Administrative procedure concerning IG type investigations. Further, why was he in small claims court in the first place? The judge admonished him for appearing, reminding him of the clear case law prohibiting attorneys to appear on behalf of clients in small claims.

District General Counsel Greg Rolen, after testimony of our witnesses, admitted negligence on the record. Consequently, this appeal was only brought to harass our family, which we have every intention of proving in court. What makes this especially poignant is that the appeal was filed just three days before Christmas and in retaliation for our contacting the school board and the press on December 21st with regard to this matter.

Is this how the District and its General Counsel spend our money? I don’t think the Mount Diablo voters will respond well to (1) this lack of accountability in a potential Jaycee Dugard scenario and (2) waste in an era when our children don’t have enough desks or school supplies!

Sincerely,

A. J. Fardella”

According to the board-approved contract with Crosby and Rowell, partners are paid $185 per hour.

Do you believe the district is spending its time and money wisely fighting this judgment?

JAN. 4 11:10 p.m. UPDATE: We have added video of Della Rocca to our online story: http://www.contracostatimes.com/news/ci_19670621?source=most_viewed.

Also, I spoke to Board President Sherry Whitmarsh and Trustee Lynne Dennler about this issue after tonight’s Parent Advisory Council meeting (no parents asked about it).

Dennler said she didn’t know about the lawsuit or the appeal before receiving Fardella and Della Rocca’s emails and reading about it in the newspaper, but she said she intends to ask district staff about it.

Whitmarsh said she agreed with Rolen’s decision to appeal. She pointed out that the law firm has agreed to cap its costs at $1,000 to “look at” the issue.

“It is a regrettable situation that a general education student was left off a few houses from where she lives,” Whitmarsh said.

Whitmarsh said she has asked Rolen to look at what could be done to improve the busing system. However, with the state transportation cuts, she predicted the district will transport fewer non-special education students in the future.

JAN. 5 UPDATE: After learning that the law firm of Crosby and Rowell had agreed to a $1,000 cap on its fees, I sent a Public Records Act request to Rolen, asking for a copy of the engagement letter and contract related to this case, since the district’s standing contract does not specify any caps.

Rolen responded that there is no separate engagement letter or contract and that the firm has agreed to bill the district at $185 per hour up to $1,000.

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