Judge Defers Final Ruling in ESD Case

Although a jury handed down a $9.2 million verdict against the Episcopal School of Dallas in September, the plaintiffs are now seeking just $6.7 million.

“Rarely do you get a judgment for the entire amount of the verdict,” said attorney Charla Aldous, who represents the Doe family.

The Does sued ESD for damages related to history teacher John Nathan Campbell’s sexual relationship with their daughter and her subsequent separation from the school.

Judge D’Metria Benson heard a variety of motions related to the final judgment and sanctions against ESD this afternoon, but deferred ruling on any of them until a later date.

Fifteen attorneys, including a handful of newly acquired appellate counsel from Haynes & Boone, attended the hearing on behalf of ESD. The school sought to have the judgment thrown out entirely, but offered an award around $3 million should its first request fail.

Attorney George Bramblett urged Benson to delay ruling on the plaintiffs’ proposed sanctions against Locke, Lord, Bissell & Liddell.

“There’s no reason, your honor, to rush to judgment on such an important thing,” said Bramblett, who was named the 2011 Malpractice Lawyer of the Year by the organization Best Lawyers in America.

On Nov. 2, the plaintiffs filed additional sanctions against lead counsel Chrysta Castaneda as well as Locke Lord for witness tampering, intimidation, obstruction of justice, and perjury. The plaintiffs’ original motion for sanctions was filed in January. Taking into account the sanctions’ wide scope (they covered issues from the entire length of the trial), as well as Castaneda’s recent abdominal surgery, Benson acquiesced to Bramlett’s request and postponed the hearing on the Nov. 2 sanctions until “a later date.”

In a move that seemed to surprise ESD’s gaggle of legal representatives, Benson bifurcated the hearing on sanctions and heard arguments contained in the plaintiffs’ initial filing.

Brent Walker, a lawyer representing the family, acknowledged that it was unusual to seek sanctions against a firm after prevailing with a multi-million dollar verdict. But Walker asserted that Lock Lorde’s “unconscionable” behavior merits legal action. Some of the charges heard against the firm included withholding tax documents and other evidence, and misconduct during witness depositions.

“A business open since 1974 should have more than five IRS documents,” Walker said. “I think that’s self-evident.”

Walker alleged that ESD displayed “a pattern of abuse throughout the entire discovery process” before asking for 50 percent of the total monetary sanctions listed in the Nov. 2 filing, which came to about $45,000.

Defense attorney Chip Brooker of Haynes & Boone argued that awarding legal fees was not an “appropriate response” to discourage this type of behavior.

“They’re asking simply for money, again,” Brooker said.

Walker also took issue with ESD’s conduct during Father Stephen Swann’s deposition, which occurred last year. Walker said Castaneda purposefully spread the deposition over multiple days and improperly restricted Swann from answering questions.

Attorney Shonn Brown defended Castaneda and attacked Aldous’ conduct, calling her questioning style “extremely abusive” with the purpose of “beating [Swann] into submission.”

Regarding the accusation that ESD withheld tax documents, Brown said they produced documents “as they became aware of them” and always acted “in good faith.”

During the motion for judgment, attorney Cynthia Timms asked Benson to take judicial notice of ESD’s settlement offer to Jane Doe II on Feb. 23, 2011. The $626,000 offer was extended only to Jane and would not have settled the entire case. The plaintiffs rejected the offer. Under Rule 167, Timms said should the court award an ultimate verdict less than 80 percent of the settlement offer, the plaintiffs would be responsible for ESD’s legal fees since March, which total $1.5 million.

Walker argued that figure seemed a bit high.

“My guess is it’s not reasonable to have 15 attorneys billing for this hearing,” he said.

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