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Judge rules no punitive damages for Elma School District in racism lawsuit

The Elma School District won a partial victory in Federal District Court in Tacoma last week, when a judge ruled that the school district would not be subject to punitive damages in a case stemming from a former student’s accusations of institutional racism at Elma High School.

At the same time, the judge did rule that Elma High School Principal Kevin Acuff, the only individual defendant in the suit, could still face punitive damages but attorneys for former Elma student Cassie Hall “will have to produce evidence that supports her allegations to survive summary judgment and will ultimately have to convince a jury that punitive damages are warranted.”

In a motion to dismiss punitive damages against Acuff, Judge Ronald B. Leighton wrote that “Hall had sufficiently pled facts to support a claim that Acuff’s conduct involved reckless or callous indifference to her federally protected rights.”

Without the use of punitive damages, it takes away a jury from potentially awarding a multi-million dollar verdict that would effectively punish the school district and, instead, award damages based on just counseling expenses and other real expenses incurred by Hall and her family.

Hall filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court at Tacoma last fall, alleging breaches of Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act, accusing the district and Elma High Principal Kevin Acuff of denying Hall’s “fundamental right to have an education free from bigotry and discriminatory intimidation, and to enjoy the same educational opportunities as her Caucasian peers.”

She says her teen years “have been punctuated by numerous instances of racial intolerance, physical and psychological intimidation, humiliation, and cruelty based on nothing more than the color of her skin.”

James Baker, attorney for the Elma School District, says he’s looking forward to addressing the numerous allegations one by one. Baker says he has been handling defense cases such as these exclusively for eight years with Jerry Moberg & Associates out of Ephrata.

“When it’s time for us to present our story, it’s going to be a completely different thing right down the line,” Baker said in an interview with The Vidette. Baker said the court has yet to hear “any responsive facts from the defendants.”

Baker also said that even if the jury only believes an iota of her claims and awards her a cursory amount of damages, the school district’s insurance coverage will still have to pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees, which could be significant in a case like this.

“In a civil rights case, if they even get one dollar then they get all their attorney costs. She has three lawyers working on this case,” said Baker, also noting that a very small percentage of these cases make it to trial as the federal judges often put pressure on the parties to settle prior to a jury trial.

Baker noted that an independent investigator out of Olympia “totally cleared the school districts (and Acuff) of any wrongdoing. “It goes down every allegation … and many of these allegations were never reported” to district officials.

The Vidette requested access to a copy of the investigator’s report in a public records request filed on Jan. 22. The school district has yet to respond.

“She rarely reported incidents of discriminating behavior at the time of the alleged occurrences,” Baker noted. He also said at least one of the alleged perpetrators was “suspended” for his behavior.

Baker said that Acuff called in law enforcement to investigate “racial hit lists” at the school almost immediately.

Noting that it’s impossible for school staff to possibly monitor everything being said by all the students in the school, he said he thought it would be difficult for the plaintiff to prove “deliberate indifference or callous disregard” on Acuff’s part.

“If calling in police isn’t doing something, I don’t know what is,” Baker said.

Baker said if the case does come to trial, he doesn’t see it happening until late this year or early in 2015.

“These cases are just totally time-consuming,” said Baker. “There’s so much minutiae.”

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