Schools Settle Supplies Lawsuit

SMMUSD Administrative Offices

Four years after its first filing, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) has settled a lawsuit alleging inappropriate fees for school supplies.

Judge Elihu M. Berle granted final approval of the fee lawsuit on Nov. 16. Claimants will receive a total of $960,343, covering 476 full payments and 162 partial payments.

“I am pleased we were able to resolve this dispute and move forward, despite our firmly-held position that the allegations could have and would have been addressed and resolved a long time ago, and quickly and efficiently, if counsel for the plaintiffs had chosen to address this issue through our uniform complaint procedures rather than through expensive litigation,” said Superintendent Dr. Ben Drati. “I again remind parents of the district’s commitment to equity ensuring that all students have access and opportunity to all aspects of our educational and extracurricular programs, our support for the law regarding pupil fees and our commitment to full compliance, and our commitment to address student fee claims and concerns and resolve them.”

Attorney Kevin Shenkman initiated the lawsuit in 2017 on behalf of parents Vivian Mahl and Gina de Baca, claiming that SMMUSD required families to pay for field trips, uniforms and school supplies in violation of the constitutional guarantee to a free education.

The suit originally included more of 655 claims totaling $1,634,534. Seven claims exceeded $10,000, maxing out at $15,535.81. An additional claim demanded reimbursement for $552,257.21.

Of a total 655 claims that were filed over the course of the suit, 638 will receive some kind of payment.

The district has disputed the suit from the start saying it already had a process in place that allowed parents to file for reimbursements, but the two sides reached a settlement in 2019. However, final approval of the settlement was delayed as the parties could not come to an agreement regarding more than 300 disputed claims, the court-ordered referee to adjudicate the process quit, and the courts began experiencing COVID-19-related shutdowns.

The case experienced a second, short, delay when local attorney Joel Koury objected to the attorney fees requested by Shenkman; however, the judge did not agree with that objection and accepted the settlement this week. Shenkman’s payment of $560,000 will be in addition to the settlement amount.

Payment of claims is expected in mid-January 2022, unless an appeal is filed.

District officials said that despite settling the case, the district admits no wrongdoing, denies any wrongdoing and denies the truth of factual allegations in the lawsuit.

A version of this story first appeared in the Santa Monica Daily Press.