A federal appeals court is encouraging the Longview School District and families to try to settle the lawsuit stemming from use of an isolation booth at Mint Valley Elementary School.
The three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on March 11 recommended the two sides to use the federal mediation service to resolve the case and report back in 60 days.
“It’s not an unusual thing for them to do that,” said Francis Floyd, defense attorney for the school district. “The Ninth Circuit is very busy. … They would rather see a case get resolved, if they can. If they can’t, then they will go ahead to spend the time to write an opinion and go through with it.”
Five local families sued the Longview School District in 2017 for about $18 million on the claim that their children suffered psychological trauma after being illegally locked inside an isolation booth at Mint Valley between 2009 and 2012.
An eight-member jury ruled in January 2018 in favor of the district, finding that there was not enough evidence to support the children’s claims that they were locked in the booth. But the plaintiff families filed for appeal later that month on the basis that key evidence and important testimony were excluded from the trial in the U.S. District Court in Tacoma.
Much is at stake for both sides: For the district, the prospect of a massive damage claim; for the families’ lawyers, recovery of hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees already spent on the case.
One of the primary arguments for appeal was that district officials destroyed the booth — a padded structure the district used to help a small number of special education students calm down — in 2012 shortly after parent posted a picture of it on Facebook, igniting a social media firestorm.
The appeal contends that the presiding trial judge should have instructed jurors to assume the district was trying to hide harmful evidence when it destroyed the booth just days after the Facebook post was made. Plaintiffs also argued the judge wrongly prohibited the jury from inferring that the booth violated state regulations for such structures.
Additional grounds for appeal cited by the plaintiffs are:
- The district court erred when it excluded the testimony of two special education students who claimed they were locked in the booth. Those students were not part of the plaintiff party.
- The original judge excluded “important” evidence related to a prior, unproven allegations of misconduct against the special education teacher accused of locking the students in the booth. Those allegations dated from decades earlier and had nothing to do with the isolation booth, but the families’ lawyers said the allegations could support the plaintiff’s negligence claims against the district.
- The court wrongly withheld from plaintiffs a 2012 legal report on whether the booth was used inappropriately, which was admitted to court under seal. The district’s defense argued the documents were protected by attorney-client privilege.
The appeals court judges will determine whether any legal errors were made in the original trial that could call for a retrial. But before making their official ruling, the appeals court judges have suggested the district and the families try to settle the case.
Not only does mediation save time for the appeals court judges, it saves money that might otherwise be put toward legal fees for a retrial, Floyd said.
“It’s cheaper to settle it than it is to go through another trial. … There is a significant potential cost in retrying a case,” he said.
The mediation process is confidential, Floyd said, so “people can take a position or explore areas without the problem of maybe having it disclosed later.”
Floyd said the school district is willing to go into meditation, but a mediation session has yet to be scheduled.
“The ball is in the plaintiff’s court … to decide what they want to do,” Floyd said.
Lead plaintiff attorney Roger Davidheiser did not return request for comment last week.
The judges’ recommendation was made after attorneys from both sides offered their oral arguments in the appeals case.
“My understanding is that … there will be another three to six month process as the court considers the merits of the case,” said Longview Superintendent Dan Zorn. (Zorn was not originally involved in the lawsuit, but he is working with the district’s lawyers to continue managing the case.)
“We recognize that an appeal is part of the process, so we are just waiting for that process to play itself out,” Zorn said.