On Wednesday, a district judge ordered Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, teacher Yvette Felarca to pay $20,000 in legal fees to the conservative advocacy group, Judicial Watch.
On Oct. 19, a judge ruled that Felarca could not stop BUSD from releasing documents that included her name or references to Antifa and By All Means Necessary, or BAMN, to Judicial Watch. In a follow-up case, the court ruled Wednesday that Felarca and two of her colleagues would have to pay some of the conservative organization’s legal fees.
Neither Felarca nor Judicial Watch could not be reached for comment as of press time.
According to Felarca’s attorney, Shanta Driver, Felarca said that she is planning to appeal this decision. Driver said that Felarca and her attorneys are planning on taking some time to speak with the other two plaintiffs in this case, as well as other BUSD teachers who have supported Felarca in order to figure out how to proceed in a “timely manner.”
Driver said that during the time that Judicial Watch requested the emails, Felarca appeared on a number of television shows, including Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News. Driver added that after her appearances, Felarca and her colleagues at BUSD received “disgusting” and “vitriolic” emails that threatened physical assault, among other things — some of which even threatened students.
According to Driver, this time period was “traumatizing” for Felarca and her community at the school. Driver said that allowing public access to Felarca’s emails, which are not about her job performance, but about her political activity, may cause the same backlash to happen again.
Judge Vince Chhabria wrote in the court order filed on Wednesday that the plaintiffs’ lawsuit was “frivolous,” and the litigation conduct of Felarca and her fellow plaintiffs was “unreasonable.” The court order states that attorney’s fees are only awarded against civil rights plaintiffs in “exceptional circumstances,” which Chhabria determined this case to be.
“I don’t think that there is anything frivolous for a teacher or a group of teachers to defend their right to want to speak out — and speak out publicly — without the threat of slander and death threats,” Driver said in response.
The order explained that some of the documents that Felarca and the other plaintiffs sued to protect had already been disclosed publicly in a different suit previously brought against BUSD by Felarca. The order also said that the plaintiffs “dragged their feet” when they were asked to provide a privilege log — meant to identify documents that plaintiffs want to protect from disclosure — forcing the court to order the different parties to meet at the courthouse for several days in order to create one.
Chhabria also wrote in the order that Felarca and the other plaintiffs’ claims rested on the “baseless assumption” that the First Amendment “condemns the alt-right” and that Felarca did not take into account her own role of making herself a topic of public discourse through her appearance on Fox News and her previous conduct at public rallies.
According to the court order, Judicial Watch asked for $317,850 in attorney’s fees from the plaintiffs, yet the court lowered that number to $22,000, instructing Felarca to pay $20,000 and her colleagues Lori Nixon and Larry Stefl to each pay $1,000.
“This allocation reflects the Court’s impression of each plaintiff’s relative responsibility for the frivolous and unreasonable conduct,” wrote the court order.
According to the court order, the amount was lowered to account for the delays in litigation that were the fault of BUSD, and not the plaintiffs. The document also noted that Judicial Watch “did not properly account for its role as an intervenor,” and that the conservative organization did not take into account the plaintiffs’ “limited financial resources” when making its request.
Judicial Watch also asked for $8,309.59 in litigation costs, according to the court order, but the court only awarded the group $4,000 which the plaintiffs are jointly liable to pay for because some expenses, such as airfare and hotel rooms, were “unreasonably high.”
According to a BUSD statement relayed by spokesperson Charles Buress, the judge’s ruling applies to an issue between the plaintiffs and Judicial Watch and that the district has not participated in the legal proceedings.
“This case has consumed a very large amount of BUSD staff time and energy, in addition to the legal costs the district had to incur defending a lawsuit that the federal court ultimately concluded was frivolous,” as relayed by Buress.