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District Loses Suit Against Law Firm

Belmont: L.A. Unified alleged malpractice in advice it got from O'Melveny & Myers.

January 25, 2002|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

The Los Angeles Unified School District lost its malpractice suit Thursday against the prestigious law firm that advised the district on construction of the Belmont Learning Complex, the $200-million high school still unfinished because of environmental worries.

A Superior Court judge said that some of the district's allegations of legal malpractice were unfounded and others could not be proven one way or another. But that doesn't matter, she argued, because the school district did not show that the advice it was given by the O'Melveny & Myers firm had caused it financial or other harm involving the campus, where construction is halted.

Had it won, the school district planned to ask the court to award it damages of about $100 million.

The incomplete hulk of the school near downtown has been a prominent symbol of school district failure since work on it was stopped in December 2000. The district's decision to cease work and the lawsuit both arose from concerns about potentially lethal concentrations of explosive methane and other toxic chemicals on the site, part of which is on a defunct oil field.

Superior Court Judge Ann Kough's 34-page summary judgment in the politically sensitive case rejects the claims that law firm failures led to the project's problems. The ruling says the firm did not err in regard to its advice on satisfying California's environmental laws, including its recommendation that a full environmental impact study was not needed.

In a statement, law firm spokesman Ralph J. Shapira said, "We are gratified by the court's decision to dismiss this case entirely. We never doubted the merits of our case, and we are pleased that the court agreed with us in such a dramatic and definitive way."

But school district general counsel Harold Kwalwasser contended that the law firm's victory was narrower and that an appeal was possible.

A separate case now before the California Supreme Court also involves the issue of whether actual damages have to be proven to win a legal malpractice suit. And a decision in that case may strengthen the district's suit, Kwalwasser said.

Indeed, Kough's ruling says her decision would have been more favorable to the school district if she could have relied on the earlier appellate court ruling in that other case.

For now, however, the Los Angeles Unified School District ruling ends a lawsuit that had mobilized some of the most powerful political and legal figures in Los Angeles. O'Melveny, founded in 1885, counts among its senior partners former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and its clients include Gov. Gray Davis and the state of California.

To protect its white-glove reputation, the law firm hired a political consulting firm to persuade nervous politicians and a skeptical public that the 4,000-seat Belmont project should be completed to help ease overcrowding.

The unfinished school became a key factor leading to a major turnover of school board members in 1999 elections. With financial backing from then-Mayor Richard Riordan, three new members swept into office with promises to reform the school district and improve student achievement.

One of the new board's first decisions was to file the lawsuit against O'Melveny & Myers. That came after an internal investigation said the law firm was negligent in its handling of the construction process.

That audit also criticized the actions of nine school district employees involved in the Belmont project and urged they be disciplined.

Even though the board voted previously to abandon the project, it is still alive. The school district has asked for bids on completing construction of the school and mitigating the environmental problems. It has received three proposals that it will consider in the coming weeks.

School board President Caprice Young said she was disappointed with the legal ruling but she defended the decision to file the complaint.

"I think the former LAUSD staff made some very bad decisions based on some extraordinarily bad advice," she said.

Still, she acknowledged that the Belmont saga has long cast a shadow over the district, and has distracted attention from educational issues.

Young recalled, for example, that on the day the lawsuit was filed in 1999, the school board approved an expensive overhaul of how elementary schoolchildren are taught to read.

That reading effort won much less attention but has gone on to bear fruit, with test scores for the district's youngest children on the rise.

"It's so frustrating because we're trying to reform this place, and it's like we're trying to swim at the same time the lead weights of the past are dragging us under," she said.

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