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Judge strikes down $155 million verdict in Aventura school case

A Miami-Dade judge has struck down a jury’s $155 million award to the former principal of an Aventura charter school, adding a new chapter to the saga over her ouster.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Rosa Rodriguez issued a final judgment Wednesday against the fired principal, Katherine Murphy, and in favor of Aventura’s city manager, Charter Schools USA and one of its employees.

Last week a Miami-Dade jury decided that City Manager Eric Soroka and the school’s registrar, Nicole Munroe, an employee of Charter Schools USA, had conspired to ruin the reputation of Murphy, who was fired as principal of Aventura City of Excellence School in 2006.

Her firing stemmed from allegations that a student skipped the wait list at the popular charter school to enter the fifth grade. The jury issued a $155 million award.

“This confirms the truth of what we have known all along, that the city manager did not do anything wrong concerning Dr. Murphy and has only acted in the best interest of the city which he steadfastly and honorably serves,” David Wolpin said in a statement. Wolpin is an attorney with Weiss Serota Helfman, and serves as Aventura’s city attorney.

Soroka’s attorney, Michael Burke, had argued that the manager had immunity from defamation charges because he is a public official.

Burke said the judge’s decision means the evidence presented over four weeks of trial did not support that claim of defamation or others, including conspiracy to defame. What’s more, it eliminates the $155 million award. “It means it’s zero. He has no liability,” Burke said.

But the saga probably is not over.

Ben Kuehne, one of Murphy’s attorneys, said she would press for the jury’s verdict to be reinstated, including an appeal if necessary.

“The judge’s decision was remarkable, unprecedented in its scope and its speed. To rush to vacate the jury’s finding not even three full days after the jury’s announcement, after having heard four weeks of trial evidence, is inexplicable,” Kuehne said.

While not common, the legal principle allowing a judge to set aside a jury’s verdict does exist, and has a long standing in U.S. legal history, said Murray Greenberg, who teaches law at Florida International University and the St. Thomas University School of Law.

“Lawyers use the slang term — you get a ‘runaway jury’ that has grabbed onto something that it’s heard and gives a verdict, which the judge thinks is way out of line,” said Greenberg, also a former Miami-Dade county attorney and of counsel at the Stearns Weaver law firm. “I think judges should do it sparingly, but should do it in those cases where he or she thinks it’s the proper thing to do.”

The judge’s reversal has left Murphy distraught, Kuehne said.

Since her firing in 2006, she had been unable to find work in the education field, and faced a near-fatal health scare in 2011 and 2012, he said. Doctors testified to the jury that a blockage in her colon was related to stress caused by the way Soroka acted toward her. That blockage led to sepsis, or a severe inflammation, that ruined part of her colon, led to gangrene and put her in a coma.

“The doctors were pleasantly surprised that she survived that ordeal,” Kuehne said. “They had concluded she was at death’s door.”

In 2003, Murphy helped found the new kindergarten-through-eighth grade charter school in Aventura. It 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, the managing company, runs charter schools in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Chicago.

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