BY ALLISON LEVITSKY
Daily Post Staff Writer
An attempt by the Palo Alto school district to keep a $150,000 legal settlement out of the public eye has failed.
Details of the settlement, including the district’s desire to keep the opposing counsel from disclosing the deal to the press, were posted on the U.S. District Court’s website.
The school board last night (Aug. 21) unanimously approved the settlement, which ends a lawsuit brought by Jennifer and James Chadam. They sued the district in 2013 after their son Colman was forced to transfer out of Jordan Middle School because he carries a gene for cystic fibrosis, although he doesn’t actually have the disease.
The suit contends the district’s employees violated Colman’s privacy and discriminated against him in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Steve Jaffe, the Chadams’ attorney, said he and his clients were grateful that the district negotiated in good faith and were able to end the lawsuit without further litigation.
But he said it wasn’t normal for a public agency to try to keep a six-figure settlement hush-hush.
“Palo Alto school district is unusual — conducts itself in interesting ways,” Jaffe said. “They’re different than the other public entities that I’ve dealt with in terms of their — I guess I’d call it institutional self-confidence.”
The school district’s attempt to keep the public from learning about the settlement emerged in a court order signed Thursday by U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken.
The order said, “The settlement also provides that the amount of the settlement will not be disclosed by either party and that the plaintiffs will not contact the press regarding the settlement.”
‘They just didn’t care’
Jaffe said the district knew that the settlement was a public document, but still wanted to ensure the Chadams wouldn’t contact the press.
“They knew. They just didn’t care. They really wanted to put that in there anyway, and they did,” Jaffe said.
The only school board member who was available for comment yesterday (Aug. 21) was Melissa Baten Caswell, who said she would “have to think about” whether it was appropriate for the school district to try to keep the settlement private.
Baten Caswell declined to say anything further and directed the Post to Superintendent Don Austin, who didn’t return multiple requests for comment.
Stacey Ashlund, a special education advocate who is running for one of two open school board seats this fall, said she was frustrated by the secrecy, but understood the nondisclosure to be a common clause in legal settlements.
“The whole case hinged around medical privacy in the first place, so I don’t know that they would want to share anything more with the public than they already have anyway,” Ashlund said. “It did sound like there were missteps in the district for releasing private medical information.”
But the settlement agreement doesn’t contain any medical information, and the medical facts of the case have been reported nationally — with cooperation from the Chadams — for years, including on KQED Science, BuzzFeed and the Genomics Law Report.
More transparency wanted
Shounak Dharap, a 28-year-old litigator and Gunn High School graduate running for school board, said he wanted to see more transparency in the district.
“The district should continue to strive for greater transparency. We don’t know all of the facts behind this lengthy litigation, so I’m hesitant to speculate about this specific case,” school board candidate and 28-year-old litigator Shounak Dharap told the Post in an email. “However, I can say that, moving forward, transparency would be better served by reducing the use of nondisclosure agreements in settlements, except where needed to protect confidential student information.”
Kathy Jordan, a parent and frequent critic of the district who is also running for school board, chided the board directly for its lack of transparency last night.
“Why the lack of transparency? Of course student information would always remain private,” Jordan said. “Aren’t these our taxpayer dollars that are being used to pay out these settlements?”
Attorney to get $60,000
The court order said that $60,000 of the settlement will go to Jaffe and the remaining $90,000 will go into a trust fund that will be available to Colman when he turns 18 on Dec. 12.
The school district will pay $41,253 of the settlement out of pocket and the remainder will be covered by insurance.
The Chadams sued the district in federal court in 2013, claiming Colman was discriminated against under the Americans with Disabilities Act because he carried a gene for cystic fibrosis, which creates a thick buildup of mucus in the lungs and digestive system.
A federal judge dismissed the suit in 2014, before it could go to trial, after the school district argued that its employees reasonably believed Colman posed a cross-contamination threat to two brothers at Jordan who had cystic fibrosis.
The Chadams appealed the judge’s dismissal, and in 2016 the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals sided with the family and decided their lawsuit should go to trial.
The appeals court stated that the parents’ complaint had adequately alleged a violation of disability law because Colman was perceived as disabled, has the right to attend the Palo Alto school closest to his home and was excluded from receiving that benefit given that he was removed from his school because of his perceived disability.
A five-day jury trial was scheduled to begin next month, but the two sides reached a settlement in mediation proceedings before Magistrate Judge Maria-Elena James on Aug. 1.