Last Updated: 9:13 p.m.
See today’s related article: “Flagler School Board Wants ‘Standing’ Closed-Door Meetings Every 3 Months. That Would Be Illegal.”
When the Flagler County School Board meets behind closed doors early Tuesday afternoon, a meeting that may at least in part be in violation of state law, it will discuss three pending lawsuits against the district, and potential settlements in two of them, including an employment discrimination lawsuit scheduled for trial in federal court in December.
The other two lawsuits were filed in Circuit Court in Flagler County and allege negligence on the district’s part–auto negligence in one case, negligence at the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club in the other. All three suits are seeking damages.
For an organization the size of the school district–it is the single largest employer in Flagler County, its pockets not exactly shallow in litigants’ eyes–the lawsuits are not unusual. The School Board’s hovering about them is.
Under Florida law, the school board may hold closed-door meetings to discuss litigation. But it may do so only if the board attorney asks for such a meeting in an open meeting, and only to discuss specific matters related to a specific suit, such as settlement terms and dollar amounts. The closed-door sessions may not be free-for-all discussions about anything related to the case. Board members may not vote or give consensus to any matters in the sessions, which are usually extremely rare.
In Tuesday’s case, the board attorney did not ask for the meeting. Board members did, itself a violation of law. The reason for the meeting was not spelled out at a public meeting ahead of time, for example by specifying the case and, as is usually the case at other local government boards, explaining in general terms why the closed-door meeting is necessary. (See: “Flagler School Board Wants ‘Standing’ Closed-Door Meetings Every 3 Months. That Would Be Illegal.”)
Because of their rarity, closed-door meetings on litigation usually focus on one case. Tuesday’s meeting will take up three, even though not all three necessarily fall into the allowable parameters for discussion in the “shade” (as such meetings are often called.) None of the three cases are identified in the district’s web notice of the closed-door meeting, though they ought to be: the names of the cases the board is discussing are not confidential or protected by shade-meeting allowances. The three cases were disclosed to a reporter, in accordance with law, once requested.
What had potentially been the most damaging of the three is former Indian Trails Middle School teacher JaWanda Dove’s allegation that she’s been repeatedly passed over for leadership positions such as assistant principalships because she’s Black. She is seeking $100,000 and an appointment to the principal’s position. The district was willing to offer monetary settlement, but not the position–at least not right away, though it had another sweetener this new schoolyear: Dove got appointed dean at Rymfire Elementary, which appears to be the sort of concession on the district’s part that could result in a surer settlement. It also disarms Dove’s argument that she is not being promoted.
The school board already met to discuss the possible settlement in a closed-door session last spring, before Dove’s new assignment. Seemingly, nothing has substantially changed since, other than Dove’s refusal to go for the settlement. The decision cost her her own attorney, who had advised her to take it. He asked the court to be removed from the case, and was. Dove got a new attorney, Donald E. Pinaud Jr., who soon after his hiring greatly upset District Court Judge Marcia Morales Howard (a George W. Bush appointee) when he didn’t turn up at a status conference hearing last June.
The judge demanded an explanation (in laymen’s terms: she required Pinaud to show why she shouldn’t toss the case). Pinaud apologized, called it “inadvertence.” Pinaud revealed that after his appointment, he had negotiations with the school districts and Dove on a more successful settlement. “This opportunity appeared initially to be fruitful and as a result there was an internal discussion in [my office] that this matter might pragmatically be settled,” he wrote the court.” But somehow that was “misinterpreted” in his office he continued, and all upcoming meetings regarding the case were removed from his calendar. He said it still was Dove’s “intent to continue the prosecution of this matter.”
The clerk then rebuked him over the manner in which he was filing his pleadings, reminding him of the “requirements relating to paper size, margins, page numbering, main text, indented quotations, footnotes, typeface and character spacing”–not a big deal in and of itself, other than another hint that Pinaud’s preparation is not what the court expects. It is just as notable that, though the case is set to be tried in a matter of weeks, and the lawsuit was filed in 2020, Dove’s attorneys have not conducted a single deposition yet.
Meanwhile, Dove’s new job aside, the two sides have argued pre-trial motions, agreeing to some, disagreeing about others. For example, Dove’s attorney agreed that Dove’s claims for backpay and frontpay not be submitted to the jury, but to the court alone, and agreed to leave out anecdotal accounts that aren’t backed up by hard data. But there’s no agreement on leaving out allegations of discrimination by the district, outside of Dove’s case, unless it’s outside of the time period Dove is contesting.
The two sides were expected to file a final pre-trial statement today, with a final pre-trial conference scheduled for Nov. 20, and the jury trial itself beginning on Dec. 4. The two sides anticipate a four-day trial.
Outside of a renewed effort on Dove’s part to settle the case (and her new job), it isn’t clear what the School Board would have to discuss in a closed-door meeting that it hasn’t discussed previously. Merely getting an “update” on the case is not permissible behind closed doors, as such an update would have to be done in public (or in individual meetings between board members and the attorney), with none of that information compromising the district’s case, relating to strategy or to monetary settlements.
Merely being told that a settlement is ahead would also be outside the bounds of a closed-door meetings–unless the district is fronting additional dollars to make the suit go away: it would not be a minor accomplishment for LaShakia Moore, the district’s first Black superintendent, who is about to sign her contract for the permanent position.
The second case on the board’s closed-door docket Tuesday involves Randy Pires, a 28-year-old resident of Palm Coast’s B-Section, who rear-ended school district employee Robert Walker’s Dodge Caravan. Walker was an assistant custodian. Pires was riding a Honda 919 south on Belle Terre Parkway a bit north of Royal Palm Parkway, just after 4 p.m. on Feb. 26, 2021.
Pires claims that the Caravan “slowed and stopped in the left lane of travel that continued straight through the light for no reason well short of the stop bar after trying to change lanes directly in front of” the motorcycle, causing Pires to “take evasive action and ultimately collide” with the Dodge.
There is video of the crash, and Pires has admitted that the video is “is a fair and accurate depiction” of both the crash and of Pires’s interaction with Walker afterward. The district argues that Pires was negligent “by traveling in excess of the posted speed limit.” Walker, the district argues, “was preparing to move from the center lane to the right lane when he observed a motorcycle approaching in excess of the speed limit. He then stopped his lane change to avoid an accident.” Pires then rear-ended the Dodge, the district argues.
It isn’t clear how much money Pires is seeking (it’s more than $30,000), but the district argues that if Pires’s medical bills and lost wages were offset by personal injury protection, he was not entitled to recovering such damages either in a settlement or at trial. The district has liability insurance with the Northeast Florida Education Consortium with limits of $200,000 per person and $300,000 per occurrence.
Pires is represented by Jacob Barrow of Morgan and Morgan, the large personal injury law firm. The district is represented by David Delaney, a Gainesville attorney.
On Sept. 26, the school district tendered a settlement offer to Pires’s attorney. A mediation session was scheduled for Oct. 10, but Sunday, Delaney filed notice with the court that mediation was cancelled, strongly suggesting–as does School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin including this case on the board’s docket Tuesday–that the settlement offer will be presented to the board.
It is also possible, but not as likely, that the settlement offer was rejected and mediation cancelled in light of a possible impasse. But if that were the case, the Pires matter could not legally be on the agenda for Tuesday’s closed-door session.
The final case on the board’s agenda is a relatively new case, filed in March by Mirlouse E. Pierre. She had gone to the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club with her daughter on July 10, 2022. She sat down on a bench by the swimming pool to watch her daughter swim. The bench collapsed and she was injured. Pierre is seeking damages in excess of $50,000.
The district’s defense is that Pierre was “herself negligent in failing to avoid the hazards alleged to have caused this injury.”
It’s not quite what school board members will want to hear in connection with a facility some of them have sought to close to the public and others have sought to keep open and improve. The case may be emblematic of the kind of district neglect and lethargy toward the club–neglect that potentially enabled a bench to shatter and injure a patron.
It is also not clear why this case would be on the board’s agenda, since it is in its earliest phase. That will become clear once the case is over and the district is required to make available, at its own expense, the transcript of Tuesday’s session.