Cerritos College settles lawsuit for $55,000

NORWALK - The Cerritos College Board of Trustees announced last week that it has settled a lawsuit filed under the California Voting Rights Act challenging the at-large electoral system previously used to elect the college's board of trustees, and seeking payment of attorneys' fees.The college board had already announced plans to change its electoral system voluntarily before the lawsuit was filed, so the only issue at the time of settlement was whether the plaintiffs were entitled to payment of their attorneys' fees. The college settled the lawsuit for $55,000 rather than engage in potentially prolonged and costly litigation, college officials said in a statement. Plaintiffs' attorneys had been seeking $140,000. "While the Board believes that Plaintiffs are not entitled to any fees and costs at all, the cost of fighting a fee motion would likely have exceeded the $55,000 that the College agreed to pay," Cerritos College said in its statement. The plaintiffs included Carmen Avalos, of South Gate, a former college trustee who left after one term to run a failed primary election bid for state Assembly and then lost her attempt at re-election; Tom Chavez, of Norwalk, a retired college classified employee, who also lost election bids in 2007 and 2009; and Leonard Zuniga, of Downey. The three plaintiffs claimed in its lawsuit that Cerritos College operated an unfair at-large electoral system. The college agreed to change to a "by-trustee area system" under which candidates must live in the trustee area they seek to represent, and only the voters in each trustee area will elect that area's representative. The board adopted the final trustee area boundaries last December and the new electoral system will be used for the first time during November 2012 elections. "This legal action was totally unnecessary," said superintendent Dr. Linda Lacy. Bob Arthur, president of the board of trustees, agreed. "The Board had received the Plaintiffs' demand and was moving with appropriate diligence in considering and acting upon it," Arthur said in a statement. "The College believes that Plaintiffs' decision to file suit when they did was driven entirely by the desire to get attorneys' fees. While the College believes Plaintiffs were not entitled to fees and costs under such circumstances, at a time when we need every dollar we have to support educational programs at the college, the Board decided it was cheaper to settle than to fight the claim for fees in court."

********** Published: March 29, 2012 - Volume 10 - Issue 50