The last two weeks have seen a whirlwind of legal activity surrounding a temporary restraining order requested by a longtime San Marino School Board member facing allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior with district employees.
The temporary restraining, or TRO, was requested Tuesday of last Tuesday, June 5, by School Board Member Chris Norgaard, and was denied by District Court Judge Fernando M. Olguin partly because the general substantive standard was not met, specifically finding that Norgaard had not presented evidence or facts relating to his immediate, irreparable harm. The court also denied the TRO based on other deficiencies in the filing.
However, the following Tuesday, June 12, the district court ordered the San Marino Unified School District to file its opposition by Friday, June 15. The court also ordered that Norgaard had to file his brief in support of the TRO by Monday, June 18.
Norgaard is seeking a TRO against the San Marino Unified School District because, he claims, the district is preventing him from participating in the job performance evaluation of Superintendent Dr. Alex Cherniss. The four other members of the school board have excluded Norgaard from the evaluation because, they say, he is suing the district, Cherniss, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Linda de la Torre and each board member individually. The school board members named in the suit are President Shelley Ryan, Vice-President Lisa Link, Board Member Nam Jack and Board Member Joseph Chang.
This legal tussle over the TRO has set off a back-and-forth argument and supposition by both sides. As an example, the School District claims in its response that the TRO “might be the most frivolous application filed this year.”
Furthermore, the relief that Norgaard is requesting from the court has “already largely been afforded” him, according to the School District.
“And the one federal claim on which he rests the application (among the many vague claims not pressed) lacks any merit as a matter of fact and well-established, controlling law,” the brief states.
The School District’s attorneys are Appalla U. Chopra, Dimitri Portnoi, Mathew T. Kline and Patrick S. McNally of O’Melveny & Myers. Norgaard’s attorneys are Guy P. Glazier and Deborah M. Parker of Glazier Yee.
Norgaard also is seeking a permanent injunction against the School District for what he claims is the violation of his constitutional rights as a member of the SMUSD Board of Education. The district disputes this claim.
“The reality is that he continues to vote on all items that come before the board, including votes this past week,” the brief states, referring to a June 12 meeting of the school board. “Indeed, when the board voted on his recusal in May, he made a long speech and lost 4 to 1.”
Norgaard is suing the district in federal court saying his civil rights were violated, including defamation of character, under the First and 14th Amendments. He’s seeking unspecified compensatory, special and punitive damages as well as attorney fees.
Norgaard claims that this entire issue is about allegations that he behaved in a sexually inappropriate manner. He has denied the allegations and even has gone so far as to say, “no person interviewed perceived it to be sexually motivated or offensive,” according to Norgaard’s lawsuit.
Norgaard says in his 25-page brief supporting the TRO that the district is “long on irrelevant (and further defamatory) allegations against the Plaintiff but fatally short on facts and law that even bear on Plaintiff’s limited and narrow request for relief at this juncture, let alone that merit denial of that relief.”
At one juncture, Norgaard criticizes the competency of the School District’s attorneys.
“It is simply misbehavior, the likes of which should not be expected or tolerated from a venerable law firm such as O’Melveny & Myers LLP or from its clients in this case, two of whom, defendants Link and Jack, are members of the bar.”
The accusations don’t stop there.
“Defendants apparently hope that neither plaintiff nor the court actually will look at the evidence,” according to the brief. “This hope is entirely in keeping with defendants’ course of conduct since the beginning of 2018.”
The School District recounts several of the incidents that involve the allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct as part the district’s opposition to the TRO.
“The bottom-line is that Norgaard did engage in unwanted kissing of district personnel; this and other conduct made district employees deeply uncomfortable,” the district brief states. “The district took tailored measures to address these issues.”
As an example, Cherniss’s 74-page declaration mentions six “Jane Does” who provided statements to the School District and the law firm of Nicole Miller & Associates, all of whom investigated the accusations, which date back as far as 2010, before Cherniss was named superintendent.
“Jane Doe 1,” who is referenced as an employee of the SMUSD, provided a statement in January 2018 regarding two alleged incidents where Norgaard hugged her and kissed her on the lips at school events in 2015 and 2016.
The Miller report, dated March 22—which was undertaken at the behest of the school district—concluded that “both witnesses maintained they were not offended or made to feel uncomfortable by Mr. Norgaard’s behavior, nor did they perceive Mr. Norgaard’s actions as sexual in nature.” But Jane Doe 1 refuted the finding in a letter to de la Torre dated April 9, just seven days after she met with de la Torre to discuss “the relevant part of the decision affecting my specific complaint.”
According to the letter, de la Torre told Jane Doe 1 that the findings of the report deduced that the “incidents did not rise to the level of ‘severe and pervasive’ and that it was therefore concluded that the Board Member’s conduct did not constitute sexual harassment. The report also concluded that Norgaard did “at times, engage in unsolicited hugging and kissing of female employees, visited young female employees in the workplace, and contacted female employees outside of work hours regarding non-district related matters.”
Jane Doe 1 stated in the letter: “I disagree with the results of this investigation. I felt violated and embarrassed because he crossed a boundary, that as my superior, he should not have crossed.” She also stated that “the second kiss on the lips bothered me even more than the first because it validated that the first was not an accident.”
She also called the experience “a nightmare.”
“I am sick to my stomach, haven’t been able to sleep, have anxiety and feel like the district isn’t taking these complaints seriously,” Jane Doe 1 continued. She also mentions in the letter that she is “now forced to consult with an attorney to make sure that I am protected against further retaliation from this Board Member and would like the district to reconsider the unprofessional manner in which it allows its authority figures to treat/harass employees.”
The declaration continues with more examples of alleged inappropriate behavior.
Finally, the district’s brief summarizes its opposition to the TRO this way.
“Norgaard’s TRO, which seeks to punish anyone who dare hold him accountable to the same rules that apply to everyone else in the district, should be denied.”
Norgaard, of course, asserts the TRO should be approved and he attached a personal declaration stating why: “The opposition papers only exacerbate the irreparable and hurtful damage to my family.”
He goes on to say, “I believe that they are contrary to not only the reputation, but the first-hand knowledge and experience that are the basis of the reputation I have in the San Marino community and particularly its school community. I stand ready in any setting for a full hearing or trial on the merits, including any appearance before the court on the instant application, to show the truth of the statements in this declaration and the detailed, documented factual allegations of my verified complaint herein.”
The TRO is now in the hands of District Court Judge Fernando M. Olguin. That ruling is expected sooner rather than later.
Norgaard, an attorney, has been a school board member since he was first elected in 2003. He was subsequently re-elected or returned to the board in 2007, 2011 and 2015. Due to a state advisory to change local elections to match the federal and state cycles, Norgaard’s current term will not expire until 2020.
On Monday, January 22, Norgaard was informed of allegations against him that included sexual harassment and battery. He was restricted from setting foot on all district campuses and properties and was not allowed to contact any district employees.
On Tuesday, April 24, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office announced it had declined to prosecute Norgaard due to “lack of sufficient evidence” according to the DA’s charge evaluation worksheet. Please see sanmarinotribune.com for updates.