LOS ANGELES (CNS) – A Los Angeles Superior Court judge who presided over the trial of a Black former Bassett Unified School District teacher who won $25 million after alleging he was wrongfully fired in 2019 should not be disqualified from hearing post-trial matters in the case, another judge has ruled.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Maria D. Hernandez reviewed the district’s motion to remove Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stephanie M. Bowick while Hernandez herself sat by Judicial Council assignment as a Los Angeles Superior Court judge and issued a ruling Thursday.
The district’s attorneys stated in their court papers that Bowick’s own post-trial disclosures raised doubt whether she could be fair to the BUSD in further proceedings in the case.
The BUSD lawyers maintained in their court papers that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rupert A. Byrdsong, who previously worked with the law firm representing trial plaintiff Michael Ross, appeared in Bowick’s courtroom without a robe and “on multiple occasions made clear his support of one party.”
Byrdsong, whose courtroom is on the same floor as Bowick’s, followed up with a congratulatory text to Bowick when the verdict was returned “for the party he favored” even though there “are still substantial issues to be decided,” the BUSD attorneys stated in their court papers.
Bowick “evidenced that she knew that her colleague’s conduct in visibly supporting one side over the other both in the courtroom and by ex parte text was improper” by eventually asking him to cease his appearances in the courtroom and feeling compelled to disclose the congratulatory text, the BUSD lawyers argued in their court papers.
“The appearance of impropriety here is palpable and inescapable,” the BUSD lawyers stated in their court papers..
But in her ruling, Hernandez said the district had not met its burden of showing that a reasonable person could conclude that Bowick, who declined to recuse herself, could not be impartial during further proceedings in the Ross case. Hernandez rejected the BUSD attorneys’ speculation that Bowick changed a ruling she previously made to make it more favorable to Ross after Byrdsong allegedly met with Bowick in the latter’s chambers.
Hernandez said Bowick stated on the record that she changed her ruling based on the facts and the law. In court papers, Bowick denied that Byrdsong went into her chambers and said her assertion was supported by her clerk.
In the underlying lawsuit, Ross alleged he lost his job in a backlash for having previously brought a discrimination suit and because he spoke out about sexual misconduct by a district custodian. A jury on July 23 found that Ross was the victim of retaliation and a failure to prevent retaliation. Of his $24.8 million in damages, $22 million was allocated to compensate him for his past and future emotional distress.
The district maintained Ross was terminated for legitimate reasons. Lawyers for the BUSD stated in their court papers that on the last day of summer school in July 2017, Ross left early without permission and “without concern for the whereabouts of his students.”
In his initial suit, Ross stated he was hired by the BUSD in 1994 and held teaching positions at various schools in the San Gabriel Valley, including Bassett High School and Torch Middle School.
Torch School students who called Ross the “N-word” and other racial epithets were routinely not disciplined despite the plaintiff’s complaints, the initial suit stated. He also was given a written reprimand for calling the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department instead of the district’s own security personnel to report one student’s threat of violence against him, according to the initial suit, which was filed in May 2016 and settled a year later.
In July 2017, BUSD custodian Michael Barry was arrested and charged with multiple acts of sexual misconduct involving several students at Torch School. One of the alleged victims was a female student who had told Ross the janitor had made her feel uncomfortable, according to the second suit. Ross reported what the girl had said to the Torch School assistant principal, according to the second suit filed in June 2019.
After Ross spoke with the Torch School principal about Barry in August 2017, the district allegedly retaliated by placing him on leave and then sending him a notice of charges and proposed recommendation of termination 15 months later when he was still not allowed to return, the second suit stated.
Ross appeared for a hearing with a legal representative and presented a written brief and oral argument which “squarely refuted and disproved several of BUSD’s meritless allegations,” but he was nonetheless fired in January 2019, according to the second suit.
Bowick presided over lengthy litigation that pitted Katy Perry and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles against nuns who opposed the pop star’s bid to buy a former Roman Catholic convent in Los Feliz as a residence. The sale was never consummated.