LANCASTER — Antelope Valley Union School District Board member Victoria Ruffin has accused the District of offering former longtime General Counsel Bridget Cook significantly more money to settle her wrongful termination lawsuit against the District than what the District’s insurer has offered.
Ruffin discussed the lawsuit even though details have not officially emerged, having been debated only in closed session.
Ruffin is a defendant in the lawsuit, along with Board member Amanda Parrell, former member Robert “Bob” Davis, the District, Superintendent David Vierra, and Assistant Superintendent Brett Neal.
“I’m hearing from people in the community that our District is offering a 2.5 settlement and SISC (Self-Insured Schools of California, the District’s insurer) is only offering $5,000,” Ruffin said at Wednesday’s Board meeting.
Ruffin presumably meant $2.5 million. It is not clear who in the community is talking about the case, which is scheduled to go before a jury in August 2022. Neither was it clear if the numbers Ruffin cited are accurate. District officials declined after the meeting to respond to Ruffin’s comments because the case is pending.
The Board has discussed the lawsuit in closed session five times this year, with another session scheduled for Monday, according to Board agendas posted online. No details have been reported out during open session.
“We talk about friendship relationships and whomever’s making these decisions, this is one of the reasons why I haven’t gone into closed session,” Ruffin said. “Because I want to make sure that when this information comes to me it’s not because I’m in that space and that the community is talking.”
Cook contends she was fired in 2019 for blowing the whistle on allegedly improper and illegal contracts that would have provided financial windfalls to Ruffin, Parrell and Davis, or to their friends and associates. Cook, who is Black, also alleges she was the victim of race and gender discrimination. Cook’s attorneys, Alan A. Greenberg and Claire-Lise Y. Kutlay, filed an amended complaint on March 17 with a demand for a jury trial.
The amended complaint lists eight causes of action including retaliation, violation of the Reporting by School Employees of Improper Governmental Activities Act, intentional infliction of emotional distress, hostile work environment, breach of contract, and violation of the whistleblower protection. Ruffin and Davis are the only defendants named for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The hostile work environment cause lists Davis, the District, Vierra and Neal.
Cook is seeking reimbursement for lost wages and benefits, emotional distress and reputational damages, exemplary and punitive damages, attorneys’ fees, a civil penalty of $10,000 each for each violation of the Labor Code, as well as back pay, and compensation for special damages sustained as a result of the discrimination and unlawful discharge, according to the complaint.
SISC would pay attorney fees, but any damages or settlement would come from the District’s general fund.
Cook was the highest paid African American and the highest paid woman at the District before her termination.
“AVUHSD has engaged in a pattern and practice in which white men receive reasonable notice that their contracts are ending,” the complaint said, “and are provided with the opportunity to remain employed, maintain their salaries, and ultimately to receive promotions. In contrast, women and African Americans in management positions are demoted, lose pay, or are fired.
“Cook was also paid less because she is an African American and a woman.”
Cook began working for the District in 1994 as a substitute teacher. She became a full-time teacher in 1995, and general counsel in 1998. She successfully served in that role until she was terminated unlawfully and without cause by Ruffin, Parrell, and Davis, according to the complaint.
Cook regularly attended Board meetings and served as sergeant at arms. She served as a member of Vierra’s cabinet shortly after Ruffin and Parrell were seated on the Board in December 2018. Her responsibilities included providing day-to-day legal advice to District leadership, site administrators, Board members and other staff, according to the complaint. Throughout her tenure, Cook received positive reviews and saved the District millions of dollars. Every review Cook received found that she met or exceeded standards, according to the complaint.
Cook’s contract automatically renewed on May 16, 2018, for another two-year term ending on June 30, 2020. Cook’s contract explicitly required the Board to provide written notice in the event her contract is not renewed.
Cook’s complaint alleges that Ruffin, Parrell and Davis engaged in improper governmental activities, including awarding and attempting to award lucrative contracts to friends and associates shortly after Ruffin and Parrell joined the Board in December 2018 when they began to vote in a block.
One of the contracts named in the complaint is with the Harris & Associates law firm, which is representing Ruffin, Parrell and Davis in the lawsuit.
Cook raised concerns about alleged waste, improper use of government funds and unlawful conduct to the Board and to her supervisor, Superintendent Vierra. Ruffin, Parrell and Davis ignored her disclosures and fired her without warning and without cause on May 9, 2019.
“The Board majority disregarded Cook’s protected disclosures, and AVUHSD unlawfully retaliated against her by terminating her employment without cause,” the lawsuit said.