The U.S. Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court decision that spared the Longview School District millions of dollars in damages in a lawsuit in which five families alleged improper use of the isolation booth at Mint Valley Elementary School.
The ruling in effect clears the district of all claims. Lawyers for the families say they will not attempt an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Rick Parrish, spokesperson for the Longview School District, said administrators are satisfied to have the case closed.
The lawsuit, filed in 2015, was brought against the district by the families of five former Mint Valley students. The plaintiffs were Brandon Bastin, Candace Dawson, Tessa Green, Candi Landis, Cecilia Wilson and Kevin Wilson. They claimed that Jerry Stein, a former special education teacher, had improperly placed their children in the isolation booth between 2009 and 2012.
The lawsuit alleged the district violated the students’ Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure and force. It also alleged five negligence claims and two loss of consortium claims, as the parents argued that placing their children inside the booth damaged the parent-child relationship.
The plaintiffs also claimed that the isolation booth experiences caused their children emotional and mental trauma. The plaintiffs’ lawyers had sought $17.6 million in damages to compensate for the trauma, lost wages and medical costs.
The district denied all of the plaintiffs’ allegations but did admit one of the students was legally placed inside the booth on a single occasion for emergency reasons.
In January 2018, an eight-member federal district court jury dismissed the 12 claims against the district and Stein. The families appealed the ruling, and in March 2019 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco recommended the two sides use the federal mediation service to resolve the case.
But on March 25, mediation efforts had “been exhausted” and the case was returned to the court, according to court documents. In May, the appeals panel heard the case and upheld the district court’s ruling, issuing a decision on June 21.
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The plaintiffs’ Seattle-based attorney, Roger Davidheiser, said the families are disappointed with the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, but the appeal process won’t go further.
“We’re all disappointed with the decision,” Davidheiser said. “We certainly believe that it was wrong what the school district did to these children and we would never want to see this happen again to any other children.”
Davidheiser said that the appeals court did reverse the district court’s decision that the plaintiffs pay the district’s legal costs in the suit. Under the June ruling, each side will pay its own costs. Davidheiser said he could not comment on the amount the plaintiffs might owe. Court documents state that the plaintiffs had limited income and requiring them to pay both costs “might chill future civil rights litigation.”
The plaintiffs had cited several grounds for appeal, including that the district court erred when it excluded the testimony of two special education students who claimed they were locked inside the booth. Those students were not part of the plaintiff group.
The appeal also claimed the district court trial judge excluded “important” evidence related to prior, unproven allegations of sexual and physical misconduct against Stein from 1991 and 2006 that had nothing to do with the isolation booth. The families’ lawyers claimed the prior allegation could support the plaintiff’s negligence claims against the district.
The San Francisco-based court of appeals rejected both those assertions. Regarding the old allegations against Stein, the court found that the allegation had limited value in the isolation booth case. Any value the evidence might have was “substantially outweighed by the extremely inflammatory effect of alleging that a school district or principal looked the other way in the face of allegations that a teacher physically and sexually abused children,” the June decision said.
The panel also upheld the dismissal of neglect allegations, as there was no evidence produced that any of the accused acted with “intent to cause, or reckless disregard for the possibility of causing, emotional distress.”
Isolation booths are windowless spaces that can only be used by specially trained school employees to restrain or calm a child that is posing a clear and immediate threat to others.
The district destroyed the booth in early December 2012, five days after photos of the structure posted to Facebook by an angry parent went viral. The plaintiffs argued the district was trying to hide harmful evidence when it destroyed the isolation booth. Emails and court records indicate administrators feared the booth could place the district at legal risk.