Attorney for famed teacher Rafe Esquith files class action suit against L.A. Unified

An attorney for celebrated Los Angeles Unified teacher Rafe Esquith on Thursday accused the district of employing an “investigative hit squad” to drum up false charges against older, well-paid teachers in an effort to avoid paying their retirement benefits.

The district and attorney Mark Geragos have been locked in a legal battle over an investigation into allegations of misconduct against Esquith. School board members this week voted to fire the nationally recognized teacher, according to sources with knowledge of the decision.

Esquith, a teacher at Hobart Elementary School for more than 30 years, was removed from the classroom in April after another educator complained about a joke he made to students related to nudity. The complaint prompted an investigation, which grew to include his management of the nonprofit Hobart Shakespeareans and allegations that he inappropriately touched minors.

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On Thursday, Geragos responded by filing a class action lawsuit against the district seeking $1 billion in damages on behalf of about 2,000 teachers who he said were unlawfully placed on administrative leave pending a misconduct investigation. The lawsuit alleges that the district deprived teachers of $500,000 in pension and health benefits by firing them or forcing them to resign.

Esquith is the only teacher named in the lawsuit. Geragos said the district has not informed him that it is starting termination proceedings against Esquith, but he said any action taken by school board members was a preemptive move to the class action lawsuit.

“They have what I would charitably call an investigative hit squad that goes out and basically intimidates and tries to extract statements from students that they then use for kangaroo-court style proceedings in order to get people to resign so that they don’t vest with their retirement benefits,” Geragos said at a news conference.

District officials declined to comment, calling it a confidential personnel matter.

Esquith was initially sent to a district administrative office, where instructors report after they've been removed from their classrooms over allegations of wrongdoing. 

Geragos said Esquith wants to shut down those so-called teacher jails.

"Mostly he wanted to teach," Geragos said. "That’s not going to happen anymore -- not at Hobart, not by L.A. Unified -- and he wants to never let this happen to any other teacher."

The attorney said his class action lawsuit would not be the only legal challenge against the nation’s second largest school district. Geragos said parents and community members also plan to file suit for “the tactics that were used to try to intimidate students of Rafe’s into saying something negative about him.”

zahira.torres@latimes.com

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