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JUST IN: Judge denies LA Unified request to dismiss lawsuit filed by fired teacher Rafe Esquith

Sarah Favot | July 13, 2016

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Rafe Esquith

Rafe Esquith

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge Wednesday denied LA Unified’s request to dismiss a lawsuit filed by well-known former fifth-grade teacher Rafe Esquith, who was fired in October.

Esquith filed the defamation lawsuit against the district in August after he was placed on paid leave and assigned to “teacher jail” pending an internal investigation after a fellow teacher complained that Esquith made a joke about nudity in front of his students. Esquith had taught at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School located between Koreatown and Westlake for more than 30 years.

Students, parents and fellow teachers protested outside Hobart Elementary last year when Esquith was removed from the classroom.

The district’s attorneys filed an anti-SLAPP motion earlier this year seeking to dismiss the entire case.

Ben Meiselas, Esquith’s attorney, said an “army” of LA Unified attorneys were in court Wednesday and argued in favor of dismissing the case, but the judge denied the request. Esquith was not present for the hearing, Meiselas said.

“I think that their lawyers convinced them, I think improperly, that this case was not going to go to trial, but today we’re one step closer to going to trial,” Meiselas said. “It was a really, really, really big victory in court for Rafe Esquith.”

An LA Unified spokeswoman said the district plans to appeal the ruling.

“We respectfully disagree with the court’s decision,” Shannon Haber said in an email. “As such, we intend to appeal the judge’s denial of our motion.”

Students chanted and carried signs

Students chanted and carried signs

The lawsuit also alleges infliction of emotional distress, retaliation and age discrimination. Lawyers for Esquith said the educator was hospitalized with stress-induced thrombosis. The suit also claims retaliation for Esquith’s complaints about teacher jail and the filing of a class-action lawsuit.

“Today was a real vindication of the claims being asserted and Mr. Esquith is prepared to continue his fight and continue to succeed against LAUSD and its army of bully lawyers,” Meiselas said.

Esquith filed the class-action lawsuit against the district about “teacher jail.” In that lawsuit, Esquith claims that the district has overseen the “unconstitutional imprisonment” of at least 2,000 teachers in teacher jails. His attorneys argue that the discipline is a “shrewd cost-cutting tactic, implemented to force its older and better-paid teachers out the door” by terminating them or forcing them to quit thereby preventing the teachers from receiving their pension and health-care benefits and saving the district money. The lawsuit describes the teacher jails as “nondescript, fenced-in, warehouse facilities,” where teachers are prevented from speaking to each other and forced to stare at the walls for six hours a day. The lawsuit seeks $1 billion in damages.

The district’s $7.6 billion budget for this fiscal year approved last month includes $15 million to pay salaries for teachers and other staff “housed” in teacher jails. The district said 181 staff members, an increase from last year, are what the district describes as “housed,” but what is more commonly known as teacher jails, while the district conducts internal investigations.

The class-action lawsuit has recently been moved from state court to federal court, at the request of the district, Meiselas said, because the case cites violations of federal civil rights laws.

The investigation into Esquith began in March 2015 after a teacher overheard Esquith recite a passage from Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” that referred to the naked king. Esquith, who is known for teaching Shakespeare to his students, said his students could recognize the passage from which he was quoting.

In December, the district released documents to the Los Angeles Times investigators found in their internal investigation that claim Esquith fondled two boys and a girl in the 1970s. Investigators said Esquith’s work computer contained inappropriate pictures and videos. There were other allegations.

Esquith’s attorneys have denied the allegations and called the investigation a “witch hunt” and “specifically orchestrated to assassinate Mr. Esquith’s character.”

Esquith seeks to get his job back through the lawsuit.

Last May, LA Unified reported Esquith to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing for a formal investigation for abuse and misconduct, but that body found the allegations to be without merit, Esquith’s attorneys said.

Esquith has written best-selling books and received numerous accolades for innovative teaching, including Disney’s National Outstanding Teacher of the Year award, a Sigma Beta Delta Fellowship from Johns Hopkins University, a National Medal of Arts, and Oprah Winfrey’s $100,000 “Use Your Life Award.”

The next hearing in the case is scheduled in September.

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