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Missouri school district: $300K in fees appropriate in failed employee lawsuit

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(The Center Square) – Taxpayer dollars should have been spent on education, not legal fees, according to a brief filed by the Springfield R-12 School District in response to an appeal by two employees ordered to pay $312,869.50 when their suit was dismissed.

“The fact that the district court under these circumstances awarded SPS its attorney’s fees, particularly when those monies should have been spent on education, is a testament to the fortitude of the district court,” the brief filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit states. “It did not abuse its discretion. School districts should not have to pay to defend against claims brought by professed civil rights Plaintiffs, who misuse their claimed beliefs in equality.”

U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Harpool granted a summary judgment in favor of the school district in January when two administrators filed a suit claiming their First Amendment rights were violated during a professional development session on equity and racism. Judge Harpool allowed the district to request attorneys fees in February and he granted the amount in April. The two administrators remain employed by the district, according to legal briefs.

An attorney representing the administrators appeared on two cable news networks and criticized Harpool’s ruling. She later apologized when Harpool asked for an explanation of how the remark, “This is an effort by a lone agenda-driven federal judge …” didn’t violate Rules of Professional Conduct in both Georgia and Missouri.

To date, 10 briefs in favor of overruling Judge Harpool’s awarding of legal fees have been filed. The Missouri School Boards’ Association filed a brief in favor of the ruling.

The briefs against the ruling comprise a diverse group of organizations. They range from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Alliance Defending Freedom. The states of Missouri, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia also filed a brief in favor of the administrators.

The Show-Me Institute, Goldwater Institute, Kansas Justice Institute and Mississippi Justice Institute filed a 42-page brief to overturn the ruling, stating: “Courts considering a fee award should be cognizant of the effect it will have on plaintiffs acting in good faith to challenge the constitutionality of government actions.”

The District’s 59-page brief and request for oral arguments in the case stated Harpool’s ruling is fair and should stand as an example.

“If ever a school district deserved to be awarded its attorney’s fees and costs, it is SPS,” the district’s brief stated. “Through workplace anti-racism training, SPS did nothing more than seek to encourage its staff to fight for and advocate for minority students. Yet, it found itself fighting against the frivolous claims of egocentric Plaintiffs, who elect to be unaware of the potential barriers students may face, making SPS the poster child for when, how, and why a school district should be awarded its attorney’s fees.”

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