A judge Tuesday collectively awarded more than $5 million in attorneys’ fees to an ex-superintendent of the Montebello Unified School District and another former executive who said they were fired for exposing political corruption at the MUSD.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Linfield said former Superintendent Susanna Contreras Smith was entitled to $3.2 million in attorneys’ fees, and he awarded another $2 million to former chief financial and operations officer Cleve Pell.
Lawyers for the district disputed the expenses presented to the court by the plaintiffs. Among their claims were that the plaintiffs’ attorneys spent more than 80 hours on depositions that were either entirely unnecessary or took too long.
The judge agreed in part with the MUSD lawyers, trimming about $1 million from the fees requested by Contreras Smith and about $600,000 from Pell’s request.
A jury in July awarded compensatory damages totaling $2.7 million to Contreras Smith and $567,665 to Pell. Both sued the MUSD, contending they were whistleblowers who lost their jobs in 2016 for coming forward about alleged misconduct by the then-Board of Education and Chief Business Officer Ruben J. Rojas.
Smith and Pell brought the lawsuit in June 2017. The suit alleged that Rojas, who was in charge of the district’s $300 million budget, “was directing lucrative MUSD contracts to cronies in violation of public contracting laws.”
Rojas testified during the trial, and denied any wrongdoing.
According to the lawsuit, Smith put Rojas on leave and she and Pell brought their findings to the board, but those efforts were thwarted when the trustees “sought to cover up the web of corruption surrounding Rojas, engineered his return from leave by false pretenses and then voted to terminate Smith and Pell in retaliation for their whistleblowing.”
Rojas was hired by the MUSD at a time when the district had begun efforts to upgrade its aging school facilities. But as time went on, the plaintiffs alleged they found out that Rojas was “an individual who had crisscrossed California looking for school districts to exploit for his personal benefit.”
Within a year of his hiring, Rojas awarded many lucrative MUSD contracts to people favored by him, violating the state’s Public Contract Code and other laws in the process, according to the complaint. But instead of heeding the concerns of Contreras and Smith, the board placed both on leave in 2016 and fired them a month later, according to their lawsuit.
The suit also alleged that Rojas made misrepresentations and omissions about his past employment history when he submitted his application for the MUSD job, from which he was fired in March 2017.
Rojas was originally a defendant in the lawsuit, but the plaintiffs later dropped him from the case.
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