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Judge throws out lawsuit against schools

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

The case of a former Mt. Zion High School special education teacher, who was suing Clayton County Public Schools while being represented by a member of the Board of Education, was thrown out by a U.S. District Court judge on Tuesday.

Lakeetra Mason had been suing the school system, and the Board of Education, since 2006, when her employment contract was not renewed for the 2006-07 school year. Judge Clarence Cooper decided there was not enough evidence to support Mason's claims of unlawful termination, and prejudice.

The case became publicly known on Monday when Julie Lewis, the school system's general counsel, recommended that the school board censure board member, Michael King, an attorney, for representing Mason without notifying school system officials about his involvement in the case. King was Mason's attorney throughout the nearly two-year legal battle.

"You cannot be a board member and sue the school system at the same time," said Lewis on Wednesday.

King is accused of violating board policy BH/GAG, which forbids board members from representing someone "in any action or proceeding against the school system ..." The board will vote on the resolution of censure on Oct. 6.

King said he is working on a response to the censure resolution, which he will give to colleagues before the meeting begins.

King's position as a board member would have put him in two positions to help Mason win her case: from an information standpoint, as well as a financial position. During executive sessions, attorneys often talk to the board about pending litigation issues. King could have taken any information he obtained during one of these sessions and used it against the school system, said Lewis.

As financial stewards for the school system, the school board has to approve payment of any monetary settlements for lawsuits. If the case had continued, and Mason eventually won, King would have been in a position to press for the settlement to be approved by the board.

King said he told Mason he could no longer represent her shortly before he was sworn in on Aug. 25, because he understood a conflict of interest existed. The board member said he continued to serve as the attorney of record for Mason until she could get a new legal representative, because he did not want to abandon her.

Lewis found out about the case in mid-September, when she was notified about new documents in the case file. She was not familiar with the case, but Lewis had her paralegal compile all of the documents related to the case.

At that point, they discovered King was Mason's attorney.

Lewis immediately made the situation known to Superintendent John Thompson, and officials from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), who are working with the district to help it regain its accreditation.

King argued that he did notify the school system of a potential conflict of interest, however. During a board meeting on Sept. 22, the board members signed ethics affidavits, swearing they had no conflicts of interest.

King drew a line through the word "not" in his affidavit. "If I hadn't done that, I would have been falsely swearing to something that wasn't true," said King.

King was seeking $6 million on Mason's behalf for compensation; emotional distress and punitive damages, according to court documents. Unspecified amounts of money for medical expenses, lost wages, and attorney fees were also sought.

The documents also show that Mason had medical expenses "in excess of $100," but those costs were not explained. The same documents claim that Mason has Iritis, which is an inflammation of the eyes.

King also tried to get Mason's job back, and sought to prevent the school system from committing "future actions which violates plaintiff's federal employment rights."

Cooper decided Mason did not have enough evidence to support her claims of prejudice, harassment and wrongful termination without notice or due process. Mason did not provide names of "similarly situated" white, male, special education teachers whom she claimed received better treatment than what she got, according to Cooper's ruling.

Cooper also found issue with the amount of -- or lack of -- time Mason spent with her students, citing several occasions in which the former teacher arrived to class more than 10 minutes late, and left her students unattended for long periods of time. On one occasion, Mason was gone for nearly an hour.

Cooper also dismissed an attempt to use Mason's Iritis as a reason for not showing up to work on time.

"Plaintiff cannot establish pretext because her attendance and punctuality issues are well-documented and certainly would motivate a reasonable employer to discipline her," said Cooper. "Defendants [School administrators] repeatedly counseled plaintiff about her punctuality and attendance ... Plaintiff's attendance did not improve. In fact, the evidence shows that plaintiff's attendance got worse."

King said he was not surprised by the decision, and he does not know if Mason will get another attorney to file a motion for reconsideration with the court.

While King is still listed as the attorney of record, he said he is through with the case. "I've been done with the case for awhile, because I haven't taken any action on it since Aug. 25," he said.

Even though the case is behind King, it will continue to hang over his head as he fights to stay on the school board. Lewis said King's representation of Mason will still be an issue until he officially breaks ties with the case.

"Unless, and until, he can show the board he is no longer representing this person, it will continue to be a conflict of interest," said the school system's legal counsel.