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District Disputes More Settlement Claims Than Expected, Officials Say

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By Jorge Casuso

February 20, 2020 -- The School District received 625 claims from parents seeking reimbursements for mandatory expenditures under a court settlement and is disputing a "significantly larger number" than expected, District officials said.

The claims submitted by parents who purchased or rented school items or paid pupil fees between July 12, 2016 and November 22, 2019 represent a "small percentage" of the 12,000 parents who were sent claim forms, said District spokesperson Gail Pinsker.

She added that "to date there is a significantly larger number of disputed claims than expected."

The claims are the result of a class action lawsuit the School District settled in August that claimed it illegally "requires" students to purchase certain items needed for school ("District to Reimburse Parents for School Supplies Under Settlement Agreement," August 8, 2019).

"The school district has reviewed many filed claims, and is in the process of reviewing later filed claims to determine whether they are eligible for reimbursement, based on review of supporting documents and information," Pinsker said.

Disputed claims are submitted to a neutral decision-maker agreed to by both parties, "who may also request information to assess the claim/dispute," Pinsker said.

The District’s claim review process, she said, "has confirmed that many parents were led to believe that they only needed to fill out the form and not provide any supporting documents, which is inaccurate."

"The district continues to encourage parents to provide information when requested," Pinsker said.

Plaintiffs' attorney Kevin Shenkman -- who estimates the District could dispute more than 200 claims -- said supporting documents are nor required under the settlement.

"You don't need any documentation to be able to say under penalty of perjury, 'This is what I spent and what I spent it on,'" Shenkman said.

"This is common in class action lawsuits," he said. "Are they alleging 625 parents are committing perjury? That's ridiculous."

Shenkman said the District already has the documentation it is asking parents to provide if their claims are being disputed. They include such things as the name of the teacher or the syllabus showing that the item was required for a class.

They are also asked to provide an estimated cost of the expenditure, not a receipt, he said.

"They send an intimidating letter asking for irrelevant information," Shenkman said, adding that he advises the claimants to either provide the information "or just ignore the letter entirely.'"

Shenkman his firm is helping claimants respond to the disputes, which he said District officials initially estimated would be few.

"At some point, I may ask for more money," he said. "This is taking dozens of hours."

Under the settlement, plaintiffs Gina de Baca and Vivian Mahl each received $5,000, and Shenkman's law firm was paid $560,000 in legal fees and $15,000 in legal costs.

Shekman said he will use "the significant majority" of the money to establish a Social and Racial Justice Fund to help low-income students in the District pay for college.

The lawsuit claimed that parents were unlawfully charged for such things as calculators for math classes, art supplies, writing utensils, paper and notebooks in violation of California's Education Code and Constitution.

They were also charged for uniforms and swimwear for physical education classes, outfits for choral performances and musical instruments and field trips.

Pinsker said a few of the claims asked for such large amounts it is unclear if some parents were "not taking this seriously or viewed it as a farce."

Shenkman, who reviews the disputed claims, said only a handful have "a good portion that is questionable."

Most of claimants are seeking reimbursements for legitimate purchases and fees the District must provide under state law, some of which are costly, he said.

Cheerleader uniforms and related items can cost more than $3,000, Shenkman said. Field trips also can be expensive.

"There is an insane disconnect in Santa Monica and Malibu," he said. "They think everybody is rich over here."

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