Following Investigations, Norgaard Seeks Damages

After the district attorney declined to file criminal charges against him, school board member Chris Norgaard submitted a legal complaint against the San Marino Unified School District, Superintendent Alex Cherniss and Assistant Superintendent Linda de la Torre over the district’s sexual harassment investigation into him.
Cherniss, de la Torre and SMUSD have until Tuesday, June 19, to respond to the complaints, after which the matter enters the court system unless the parties reach a settlement.
“I think I have to do something with respect to my reputation,” Norgaard said in a phone interview. “It really has, in my view, substantially interfered with my ability to do what I should do as a school board member.”
The SMUSD Board of Education met late Tuesday afternoon in closed session with legal counsel to discuss this complaint, characterizing it as a “significant exposure to litigation.” Norgaard was exempted from this meeting.
In a statement following the discussion, the Board of Education released a statement that read, in part, “[the board’s] first and foremost duty and responsibility is to the district it serves and therefore it is deeply disappointed by Mr. Norgaard’s claim against the district. This is an active legal matter and we therefore cannot offer more details other than to state that we fully support the actions of the district, Superintendent Alex Cherniss and Assistant Superintendent Linda de la Torre and intend to vigorously defend against his accusations.”
Norgaard, who has served on SMUSD’s Board of Education since 2003, is alleging defamation, the intentional infliction of emotional distress and the deprivation of state and federal civil rights. He not only denies the allegations of sexual harassment and battery against him, but claims — based apparently on the results of the district’s investigation — that Cherniss and de la Torre fabricated them entirely. (De la Torre handles human resources for the district.)
He is asking for compensatory damages of at least $25,000, special damages of at least $25,000, interest on the sum of those damages, exemplary damages, injunctive relief against the defendants and legal expenses.
“There are no complaining witnesses here,” said attorney Guy Glazier, who is representing Norgaard. “There’s nobody who came forward to make allegations of harassment, battery, assault, any of the things that the falsified press release indicated.”
Based on this characterization, Norgaard also accuses Cherniss and de la Torre of filing a false police report to the San Marino Police Department, which conducted a criminal investigation into allegations of sexual battery. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office recently declined to prosecute based on that investigation’s findings.
“The San Marino Unified School District has an obligation to investigate claims of sexual harassment in the workplace and for Mr. [Chris] Norgaard, through his attorneys, to contend that these employee statements, which are factually in our possession and which precipitated this investigation, were ‘fabricated’ by myself or by anyone on my staff is irresponsible and can subject him to claims for malicious prosecution,” Cherniss said in a statement last week.
According to Norgaard’s complaint, the school district’s third-party investigator — Nicole Miller & Associates — concluded March 22 that Norgaard had not committed any misconduct and that any interactions between Norgaard and interviewed witnesses were deemed to be “not sexually motivated” or even perceived as such.
Glazier said in a phone interview he feels confident making these claims based on his review of the investigative report, but he did not want to include more information from the report in the claim yet to protect those witnesses interviewed.
“Everything that we feel comfortable saying about the investigative report is actually contained within that draft complaint,” he said.
In his statement, Cherniss defended the district’s actions.
“Our employees have every right to submit complaints of sexual harassment or mistreatment in the workplace without fear of reprisal,” the statement read. “We take such complaints seriously and they are always investigated. All district actions were taken here to ensure that we operate in accordance with our board policies and the law, as well as to protect the well-being of our employees.
“It is unfortunate that during these critically important two weeks of the school year, when we are in the midst of state testing, that school district resources are being expended to respond to character assassination and misstatements, rather than focusing our efforts on our students’ achievements and success,” the statement added.
Since Cherniss announced the investigation on Jan. 29, Norgaard said he has experienced continuing humiliation and estrangement from the San Marino community, not least because the investigation precluded him from attending school-based functions without permission and a chaperone.
The complaint notably includes a paragraph highlighting the friendly relationship San Marino residents have amongst themselves, saying “many of its residents know each other and greet each other affectionately.” In the same paragraph, it adds “most School Board members greet their friends, neighbors, colleagues, and associates with a hand shake or a hug and a kiss. It is customary and it is considered common courtesy and friendliness in this town.”
Norgaard and Glazier, who lives in San Marino, said this language was included to illustrate the culture of the community and to emphasize the ramifications of such accusations.
“Mr. Norgaard and his other fellow board members are very friendly people,” Glazier said. “It is a way of characterizing what the city is about, really, for anyone who’s reading this. If you remotely participate in the goings-on of San Marino, you understand that it is a very close-knit community, and those of us who represent us are very close with the constituents.”
Glazier said he is open to discussing a settlement, and Norgaard, whose current term runs through 2020, said he continues to receive support from community members.
“It really is a tremendous amount of support,” Norgaard said.

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