Burbank Unified School District officials are appealing an award of $3.2 million in legal fees stemming from a seven-year-old sexual harassment lawsuit.
The fees far overshadow the approximately $200,000 awarded the plaintiff in the case, Danielle Baez. In her July 11 ruling, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mary Ann Murphy noted the more than 2,500 hours Baez’s attorneys put into the case, inflated by rule violations and other actions by Nancy Doumanian and her firm.
Baez, a former Burbank Unified employee, filed a lawsuit against the school district in 2007, claiming the district’s then-facilities director, Craig Jellison, made unwanted sexual advances and sent her sexually explicit emails beginning in late 2005.
The case went to trial three times, with a 2013 jury in determining that Baez should receive $199,398 for undergoing mental suffering, economic loss and physical pain. The district appealed that award in February, and the case remains pending.
The first trial, in which the district prevailed, was reversed on appeal and the second one ended in a mistrial.
During a school board meeting Aug. 7, member Larry Applebaum appeared to acknowledge that Doumanian’s hardball tactics were intended to discourage other potential plaintiffs.
“Trust that we’re pretty educated up here and we’re pretty astute and we would not willy-nilly go down a road that we didn’t feel confident was the right road and the road that protected the district,” he said.
“Sometimes you have to do the right thing to make sure that the people understand that we don’t want this to be a regular thing,” Applebaum added.
Earlier this month, Supt. Jan Britz said the district planned to appeal the more than $3-million award, saying that amount, at 16 times what Baez was granted, is “very unusual.”
Murphy, in making her decision, cited several cases when attorney’s fees added up to far more than the damages awarded, court records show.
She also said Doumanian’s law firm consistently broke court rules, filed documents late, or without proper citations, “substantially” increasing the cost of litigation, according to court records.
“For whatever reason, the Burbank Unified School District has decided… to retain Ms. Doumanian’s law firm, and the litigation has been replete with rule violations necessitating extra time and work on the plaintiff’s side, and certainly on the court’s,” Murphy said.
Applebaum said the decision to continue with the case was to protect taxpayers.
“This board has not lost our mind and we have in fact exercised common sense and prudence,” he said.
“Because of the fact that these [decisions] occur behind closed doors… the community has to either trust the people they elect…or vote us out.”