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Jury Awards Fired Teacher $486,000

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Ventura County jury has awarded $486,158 to a former teacher who sued administrators for firing him after he complained about staffing at a county-run school.

Robert LeVine, 50, filed a wrongful termination lawsuit three years ago after he was dismissed for not showing up to work for several days.

The lawsuit accuses the Ventura County Superintendent of Schools Office and four administrators, including Supt. Chuck Weis, of retaliating against LeVine after he raised concerns about insufficient staffing levels at the McBride School at Ventura County Juvenile Hall.

LeVine also alleged that he was let go after telling the county grand jury that money allocated for one school was being spent on students in other programs.

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During a monthlong trial, LeVine’s attorney put on a case showing that his client suffered direct retaliation after questioning the funding and staffing.

Meanwhile, attorneys for the schools office presented evidence to demonstrate LeVine stopped coming to work and was let go as a result.

“Our point of view was that he abandoned his position,” said attorney Jack Parham, who represented the county schools. “I thought our defense was overwhelming.”

The jury didn’t see it that way.

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After about five hours of deliberation, the panel returned Monday with a verdict in favor of LeVine, who now works as a teacher at a juvenile hall school in Los Angeles.

“He was extremely gratified that the system worked,” said Glenn Campbell, the Oxnard attorney who represented LeVine.

“Rob LeVine informed his superiors that he was going to investigate the lack of adequate funding for the McBride School. On the cusp of that, he suffered direct and pretty devastating retaliation by these defendants,” Campbell said.

The jury awarded LeVine $350,000 for emotional distress, $86,158 for back pay and $50,000 in other losses.

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The panel also returned a special finding that the conduct of the four administrators--Weis, Sandi Shackelford, Cary Dritz and Dale Strayhorn--involved malice, oppression or fraud. Dritz and Strayhorn no longer work for the county schools office.

The finding stunned the defendants.

“That was outrageous,” Parham said Tuesday. “There was no evidence that supported that, in my opinion. None.”

Parham said he believes there are “substantial” legal grounds on which to file an appeal. But the county school board must decide whether to spend the money to fight the judgment, he said.

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“We are obviously looking at this issue right now,” Parham said. “These decisions are always economic.”

Board member Al Rosen said Tuesday that the board was notified Monday about the verdict. He said a decision about an appeal has not been made.

The verdict for LeVine comes after a lengthy court fight and separate probes by law enforcement.

Investigations by the state and the district attorney’s office could not substantiate LeVine’s allegations, and the lawsuit was dismissed in Ventura County Superior Court in mid-1997.

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But the 2nd District Court of Appeal reinstated the suit last year after ruling that the lower court had erred. The appeals court held that the events leading up to LeVine’s firing could indeed be viewed as “retaliatory.”


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