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Injured former student is appealing $10,000 judgment against Newport-Mesa district, saying it’s too low

Newport Harbor HS
Crystal Morales was in her senior year at Newport Harbor High School, pictured, when an intoxicated driver slammed into her just off school property in December 2011.
(File Photo / Los Angeles Times)

A former Newport Harbor High School student who said she was rushed to graduation without needed special education after suffering a traumatic brain injury in her senior year is due $10,000 in attorney fees from the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, according to a federal judge. The student’s lawyer, however, is appealing the amount, saying it’s too low.

U.S. District Judge Andrew Guilford limited his July 29 order to a portion of the fees Crystal Morales incurred when she first launched her bid against Newport-Mesa seeking to nullify her 2012 graduation on allegations that administrators cheated her out of an education by waiving requirements for graduation rather than crafting a plan to deal with her new disability, as required by federal education laws.

In 2013, she filed a complaint with the state Office of Administrative Hearings, in essence asking Newport-Mesa for a redo of the last few months of her high school education. The complaint claimed that teachers boosted her grades and dropped assignments in an effort to push her toward graduation, at which point their obligation to educate her would end.

The school district argued that any accommodations it made for Morales were within the allowed discretion of teachers and administrators. A hearing officer largely sided with Newport-Mesa, and Morales elevated her complaint to a lawsuit in the federal district court in Santa Ana, then the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

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Judges continued to side generally with Newport-Mesa, though Guilford faulted the school district for only verbally offering a special education assessment plan when it should have also been offered in writing. He characterized it in his order as a “narrow procedural issue.”

Morales had sought about $66,000 in attorney fees, “but [she] lost the crux of her case: whether her graduation was invalid, making her eligible for special education after high school,” Guilford wrote in his ruling. “[Morales’] requested fees must therefore be significantly reduced to reflect her marginal success in the due process hearing.”

Morales’ attorney Tania Whiteleather disagrees with the fees ruling and the overall findings that Newport-Mesa appropriately educated Morales, despite her injuries.

“My client’s life was altered irreversibly and she didn’t get services from Newport-Mesa,” Whiteleather said Tuesday. “To me that’s a travesty.”

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A Newport-Mesa spokeswoman said the district doesn’t comment on continuing litigation.

Morales, now 25, was a senior at Newport Harbor in December 2011 when an intoxicated woman behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Tahoe slammed into her as she stepped off a curb at Irvine Avenue and Margaret Drive after school.

Morales suffered a broken pelvis and a lingering head injury that kept her out of school for about three months, but she graduated on time in June 2012 with a regular diploma. The driver pleaded guilty to driving under the influence and was later sentenced to seven years in prison.

Morales struggled emotionally and cognitively long after the crash, according to court documents. She is still unable to work and collects modest Social Security benefits, Whiteleather said.

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