Former L.A. Unified teacher Rafe Esquith can continue with his lawsuit, judge rules

A popular former Los Angeles Unified teacher who was investigated and fired after allegations of inappropriate behavior will be allowed to continue his defamation lawsuit against the school district, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled Wednesday.

Rafe Esquith, a longtime teacher at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School, ran a theater nonprofit for his students, many of whom were low income, and was nationally recognized for his teaching methods.

Esquith was removed from his classroom in April 2015 after another employee complained about a joke he made to students.

He sued in state court last August, asking that the district retract allegations of sexual misconduct and pay him damages.

The school district filed a motion this year in April asking the court to dismiss the case. That motion was denied Wednesday morning, as Los Angeles School Report first reported.

In an email after the ruling, district spokeswoman Shannon Haber said: “We respectfully disagree with the Court's decision and we intend to appeal the judge's denial of our motion.” 

Esquith’s attorneys have also filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of about 2,000 teachers under investigation for various complaints who have been placed on paid administrative leave and housed offsite in so-called teacher jail during the workday, while substitutes and other teachers take their place. That federal lawsuit is pending. 

“You have hundreds of teachers ... who just sit there and stare at a cubicle all day,” Ben Meiselas, one of Esquith’s attorneys, said in an interview. “And this could go on for years.”

That has negative psychological and professional ramifications for the teachers, many of whom are not facing criminal charges or civil lawsuits while they are being investigated, the lawsuit contends.

In December, The Times obtained records of the district’s investigation into Esquith, including allegations that he fondled children in the 1970s and that in recent years he inappropriately emailed former students, describing them as hotties and “sexy” and referring to himself as their personal ATM. Esquith’s work computer contained inappropriate pictures and videos, according to the documents. Some women were shown wearing bikinis, while others were topless or nude. 

The emails were taken out of context, Meiselas said. In fighting the district’s motion to dismiss the defamation lawsuit, Esquith’s attorneys included a statement from a former student who had received one of the emails singled out. The former student said portions of the email that the district points to are “‘cherry-picked’ to depict our conversations as having an inappropriate or sexual nature that is completely inaccurate.”

Esquith has not been charged with any crimes and his lawyers have denied any misconduct.

Meiselas contends that other allegations from the district are also false and an attempt to undermine Esquith’s credibility after he began to criticize the district’s handling of teacher investigations.

Times staff writer Zahira Torres contributed to this report.

Reach Sonali Kohli at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com or on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli.

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