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Employee sues LAUSD superintendent third time alleging sexual harassment

File photo: LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines faces a suit brought by a school district employee, who has sued him twice before.
File photo: LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines faces a suit brought by a school district employee, who has sued him twice before.
David McNew/Getty Images

A Los Angeles Unified School District employee filed suit Wednesday accusing Superintendent Ramon Cortines of sexual harassment and retaliation, and alleging officials failed to intervene when told of the situation.

The lawsuit is the third one filed by Scot Graham, LAUSD's real estate director, who has made similar charges in previous complaints. The suit was filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

LAUSD General Counsel David Holmquist issued a statement Tuesday saying the courts have previously ruled on the case and the district is not aware of any new charges. "This is simply a frivolous refiling of the same allegations," he stated.

The latest suit alleges Cortines made sexual advances to Graham in 2000 soon after Cortines helped Graham get a job with the school district’s real estate leasing operations. Cortines left the school district that same year and Graham didn’t report what allegedly happened, according to the suit.

Graham claims that Cortines made additional sexual advances in 2010, the year the school board hired Cortines a second time to run the school district. The sexual advances were made at Cortines’ second home in Kern County, the suit alleges.

“Cortines’ advance shocked and disturbed Graham, who feared that declining Cortines’ request for sex would lead to unwarranted retaliatory consequences,” according to the lawsuit.

Graham said he notified his boss John Creer, and his boss’ boss James Sohn, but the school district conducted no investigation. Then in an October 2010 meeting, the suit claims General Counsel Holmquist “discouraged Graham from pursuing his claims, and suggested, in an intimidating and patronizing manner, that the incidents at the Ranch and Cortines’ unsolicited phone call were better left unreported.”

In May 2012, the district announced that it would pay $200,000 to Graham to settle his sexual harassment claims against Cortines, who by then had left the post. In the announcement, the district said Cortines denied sexually harassing Graham, but acknowledged they had a consensual relationship.

Graham later declined to sign off on the settlement. He filed one lawsuit in 2013 that was dismissed on a legal technicality and then a second one that was withdrawn in May 2014.

Five months later, the LAUSD school board rehired Cortines as an interim superintendent after the resignation of his predecessor, John Deasy. Cortines is expected to serve until a permanent replacement is chosen by the board later this year.

“What makes this different and new is the school board has rehired Ramon Cortines despite documented history of sexual harassment and sexual assault against Scot Graham,” said Rob Hennig, Graham’s lawyer.

By failing to investigate whether there was any merit to Graham’s allegations, the lawsuit argues, the school district failed in its duty to protect an employee from potential sexual harassment.

“Cortines shouldn’t have been rehired by the school board,” Hennig said.

In his statement, Holmquist said the district intends to "seek reimbursement for the taxpayers' dollars that are having to be expended in attorney's fees and costs" in dealing with Graham's allegations. The district said it spent about $240,000 defending itself against Graham's first two lawsuits.

Graham said in an interview Tuesday that he has been on leave since late last year because he’s developed a type of seizure disorder that prevents him from driving long distances.

He said he filed the latest lawsuit after the school board rehired Cortines and he was running into him in the workplace. Graham also said he felt his allegations were swept under the rug.

“No one came to talk to me…it was like being in a fraternity house,” he said.

The suit does not say how much in damages Graham is seeking, but it asks among other items for back pay, future pay, benefits, and compensation for medical treatment. It also seeks an investigation into Graham's accusations against the superintendent.