Former Aventura charter school principal wins $155 million award in lawsuit over firing

Katherine Murphy helped found the municipal charter school. Her firing in 2006 led to a lawsuit, alleging harassment, unlawful firing and breach of contract.

11/05/2012 10:41 AM

09/08/2014 6:08 PM

The ousted principal of an Aventura charter school has won a $155 million award in a lawsuit claiming her firing was not only without cause, but ruined her health and career prospects.

The verdict came late Friday after a month-long trial and years after Katherine Murphy lost her job as principal of Aventura City of Excellence School.

But the legal case is far from over, with no certainty that Murphy will receive any of the money.

The jury sided with Murphy that Aventura City Manager Eric Soroka and the school’s registrar, Nicole Monroe, conspired to ruin her reputation and that the charter company violated an oral contract with her, among other charges.

Lawyers for Soroka and Charter Schools USA have asked Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Rosa Rodriguez to overturn the jury verdict and rule against the principal. Hearings are set for Wednesday.

“The jury verdict is contrary to the evidence presented at trial, and we are confident that Mr. Soroka’s motion will dispose of the lawsuit,” said Michael Burke, an attorney for Soroka.

The judge could also reduce the award.

“More often than not, you don’t see that many verdicts of $155 million actually being paid by governmental entities,” said Murray Greenberg, a former Miami-Dade county attorney and professor at Florida International University.

The principal’s high-profile legal team, led by Richard Burton and Ben Kuehne, will take “all legal opportunities” to enforce the jury’s entire amount, which includes $500,000 in punitive damages against Soroka and $60,000 against Charter Schools USA for breaking an oral agreement.

The award amount shows “the jury’s extreme outrage at the evidence of the defendants’ mistreatment, humiliation and attempt to ruin the reputation of Dr. Murphy, an esteemed educator whose life is now a shadow of what it was before,” Kuehne said. “The jury saw what happened in this case and was very measured in their condemnation of all of these defendants.”

Murphy’s relationship with Aventura goes back to 2003, when she left a senior management position with Charter Schools USA to help found the new K-8 charter.

The school is funded with tax dollars but is operated by the city of Aventura and Charter Schools USA. The Aventura City Commission serves as its governing board. Charter Schools USA, which runs about a dozen South Florida charter schools, acts as the managing company. Murphy was hired at a $89,500 salary with the city and another $40,000 as a consultant with the management company. Quickly, the Aventura school got A grades from the state, a long waiting list for admission and even a visit from then-Gov. Jeb Bush.

In December 2006, Murphy was abruptly fired.

The reason, according to the lawsuit, stemmed from the accusation that a fifth-grader was allowed admission without going through the wait list. Soroka blamed Murphy and accused her of taking “illegal kickbacks” to enroll the student, Jake Norman, according to the suit.

Soroka fired her in a phone call and charged that she “f---ing took money from Jake Norman’s parents to enroll Jake in the school, didn’t you? ... and if you come back, the entire staff will leave ... they do not like you,” according to the suit.

Even before her termination, Murphy alleged that Soroka regularly called her names like “whore” and “slut” and ridiculed her for attending events with Aventura city commissioners.

Murphy’s lawsuit also claimed that Soroka and Monroe, an employee of Charter Schools USA, defamed the principal, interfered with her business relations and conspired to defame her. Other counts in the suit include:

* That Soroka inflicted emotional distress

* That Charter Schools USA breached an oral agreement

* That Soroka kept her personal property, including Beanie Babies and family books that she had left in her office. He threatened arrest if she returned.

In 2007, Murphy first sued in federal court; the case was sent to state court.

In calculating the damages, the jury awarded separate amounts, ranging from $5,000 to $20.9 million, for damages related to different counts.

In their deliberations, jurors also considered if Soroka and Monroe were acting outside the scope of their employment. In some cases, such as conspiracy to defame, the jury decided Soroka acted outside his work, Monroe did not.

Kuehne said the jury decision sends a “wake-up call” to school boards and government officials to be careful about contracts and who runs schools.

“Government bureaucrats without educational backgrounds have no business running schools and being supervisors to principals,” he said.

In a legal filing, Burke said none of Soroka’s comments were defamatory and noted that public officials who make statements within the scope of their duties are “absolutely immune” from defamation charges.

“The truth is that the city manager has done nothing wrong concerning Dr. Murphy, and has only acted in the best interests of the city,” said David Wolpin, an attorney with Weiss Serota Helfman Pastoriza Cole & Boniske who represents Aventura.

Ed Pozzuoli, general counsel for Charter Schools USA, said there was no contract between the company and Murphy. “There are grounds potentially that the case would be simply be dismissed and the judge would grant a verdict in favor of Charter Schools USA,” he said.

Kuehne said that because of the firing and fallout from it, Murphy, 60, has not been able to find work in the education field and has suffered poor health, even being hospitalized for three months.

“Her school is a model school that they have used and continue to benefit from all the work done by Dr. Murphy not withstanding their effort to get rid of her like yesterday’s dirty laundry,” he said.

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