A judge on Friday approved a $6,000 fine against the Los Angeles Unified School District for failing to disclose the existence of hundreds of photographs, some showing children being sexually abused by convicted Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt.
The ruling came at a hearing in the civil lawsuits that were filed by parents and children against the district following Berndt's conviction.
In January 2011, police investigators shared with the district more than 300 photographs, most of which appear to show "child abuse, at the moment of child abuse, taken by the child abuser," according to a copy of L.A. Superior Court Judge John Wiley Jr.’s ruling obtained by KPCC.
Last July, attorneys for the plaintiffs asked L.A. Unified if it had any photographs concerning the Miramonte investigation and if so, to turn them over. L.A. Unified responded at the time it was not aware of any responsive photographs and no photos were produced, according to Friday’s ruling.
Nine months later, according to plaintiff’s attorney John Manly, while taking the deposition of former L.A. Unified risk officer Gregg Breed, he learned that the district did have a set of Miramonte photographs. Breed stated he had seen a disk of photos involving the scandal while he was employed with the district, according to Manly.
L.A. Unified submitted the photos to the court on May 4. Berndt apparently took some of the photos, which show children blindfolded, mouths taped or with large cockroaches on their faces, according to the judge's ruling
In response to the delay, the plaintiffs requested an order to punish the district for failing to reveal the pictures. The judge upheld the $6,000 sanction against the district and its legal counsel, Sedgwick LLP, for discovery abuse.
“The discovery abuse was that LAUSD denied it had any photos, when in fact it had over 300 photos,” wrote Judge Wiley in his ruling adding, “ It wrecks the discovery process to say one thing and mean another.”
The district’s legal counsel, Tom Delaney, said it was the first time in his career he’d been sanctioned and told the court he didn’t intend to mislead anyone.
"We were not trying to conceal anything," he said, adding that he could have been clearer in his response to plaintiffs’ request for discovery.
L.A. Unified spokesman Sean Rossall issued a statement after the hearing saying, in part, “We respectfully disagree with the court’s decision. However, we appreciate the judge taking our objections under consideration before making a final decision on the majority of them. The school district is a committed community of educators that takes protecting students as one of its top priorities. Suggesting that we would do anything less is completely without merit. “
There are approximately 600 to 1,000 photos relating to the Miramonte case, and some of them are images of unidentified people and have not been seen, according to plaintiff attorney John Manly. The judge has scheduled a viewing of the photos for next week, which will take place in his courtroom in closed session. Only attorneys involved in the case will be allowed to participate.
Judge Wiley also ruled that the district was “incorrect” when it failed to turn over hundreds of email exchanges between Breed and other L.A. Unified employees who were discussing the Miramonte investigation. The district claimed that it didn’t have to produce the emails because Breed was hired after Mark Berndt’s arrest.
Trial for the Miramonte cases are scheduled for Sept. 16.
This story has been updated.