834 Voice, school district wrangle in court

The attorneys for 834 Voice and the Stillwater Area School District met in court again June 13 as the two sides seek to collect evidence for an upcoming trial. The civil lawsuit is the third case brought against the school district in response to the board’s decision in March 2016 to close three elementary schools.

Attorney for 834 Voice, Fritz Knaak, and attorney for the school district, Peter Mikhail, both filed motions requesting the judge to compel the opposing side to complete requests for information.

Knaak requested about 30,000 additional emails with keywords related to school closures. Mikhail requested the court compel 834 Voice to furnish documents including information about the
decision-making structure of 834 Voice as an organization and the real names of the plaintiffs the school district and board members.

According to court documents, Knaak is seeking an additional 30,000 emails from 19 email accounts of school district employees and board members. The emails, Knaak claims, contain information that is important to the claim that board members committed open meeting law violations in relation to the decision to close Withrow, Marine and Oak Park elementary schools.

Mikhail outlines in court documents the process that the school district completed in order to comply with the request for emails. According to court records, the school district hired an outside firm to conduct a search of 19 email accounts with nine search terms requested by 834 Voice. The document search was completed to include emails to and from district accounts containing the nine search terms, and the result was 28,354 documents. When the result was limited to emails where the sender or receiver was a board member, the number of documents shrank to 2,818. These documents were reviewed to follow legal requirement for privacy redactions, and 834 Voice was sent the resulting 2,400 emails. A similar process was completed for documents related to a conflict of interest claim, resulting in 4,615 documents being turned over.

In his motion, Knaak has requested all 28,000 of the documents, including emails that do not include school board members.

During a hearing Tuesday, Judge Dainiel O’Fallon said Knaak needed to review the meta data from the emails and make an argument that the emails that do not include board members are pertinent to the claims of open meeting law violations by the school board.

“It was a tough argument,” Knnak said in an interview following the hearing. “We wanted a lot more.”

Knaak said he planned to begin the first of eight depositions related to the case on June 16.

“We will be asking questions based on incomplete discovery,” Knaak said. “I’m disappointed we didn’t get everything we wanted.”

In an interview following the hearing, Mikhail said the hearing was positive.

“We are pleased the judge was well prepared and asked good questions,” Mikhail said.

In his May 30 motion, Mikhail asked the court to compel 834 Voice to identify the “real people” behind the aliases of Jane Doe, Mary Roe and John Smith. In his response, Knaak wrote in court documents that the school district has displayed “vindictive” behavior and the plaintiffs fear for their children and families.

When asked about the allegations that disclosing the names of plaintiffs in the case would result in “vindictive behavior,” Mikhail said, “I’m not going to dignify that with a response.”

Mikhail said there are legal reasons the school district as defendants would want to ensure that the aliases of the plaintiffs in the case correspondent with real people.

“The court is open to you if you choose to sue on your own behalf, but the bar is set much higher when you claim to represent others,” Mikhail said. “We want to prove whether or not 834 Voice can clear that bar and if the aliases are placeholders or if they represent real people.”

Another reason to request real identities is to ensure the court can serve its final ruling, regardless of outcome, he said.

“We need to know who is bound by the court’s ruling,” Mikhail said.

The judge has taking the motion under advisement and will submit a ruling on the motion in the near future.

Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]