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Court Bars N.J. Man From Suing District Again

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Officials of the Kittatinny school district in Newton, N.J., will be happy if they never again encounter a civil-rights lawyer named Edward J. Gaffney Jr.

After a recent decision by a federal judge prohibiting Mr. Gaffney from filing any new lawsuits against the district, that wish may well come true. But school officials may have a harder time getting their hands on the $105,000 in legal penalties Mr. Gaffney owes them.

Whatever happens with the money, the Kittatinny district's action against the local legal gadfly represents a successful use of an arcane federal rule increasingly being used by districts to counter suits they see as frivolous or harassing.

Mr. Gaffney, a 1977 graduate of the rural district's single school, which serves grades 7-12, has been a thorn in school officials' sides for several years, according to court documents. He has represented several students in civil-rights suits alleging that officials failed to follow proper disciplinary procedures.

Mr. Gaffney has not won a single suit against the district. But the litigation has cost the school system tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and scores of hours in staff time, according to Superintendent Robert G. Walker.

Legal Harassment Alleged

To deter Mr. Gaffney from filing any more federal suits, the district's lawyers turned to Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Rule 11 requires lawyers to insure that suits are "well grounded in fact'' and "warranted by existing law'' or by strong arguments for the modification or reversal of existing case law. Lawyers who push complaints or motions found to be frivolous or designed to harass another party can be hit with financial sanctions, often equal to the other side's legal costs.

Two federal judges have found that Mr. Gaffney violated Rule 11 in actions against the Kittatinny district. In one case, the lawyer was assessed a $5,000 sanction. In the more recent action, following the dismissal of a suit he filed on behalf of a disciplined student, Mr. Gaffney was ordered to pay a $100,000 penalty to the district to cover some of its legal costs.

In setting the amount of the second sanction this year, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel A. Pisano said Mr. Gaffney had "abused the legal system to harass'' the district and had "placed a considerable and unnecessary burden on the public.''

"The manner in which Mr. Gaffney has conducted this litigation demonstrates that he has committed every transgression Rule 11 is intended to deter,'' the judge wrote.

Mr. Gaffney, whose office telephone has been disconnected, could not be reached for comment last week. In an affidavit filed with the court, however, he denied he had any animus toward the school.

Mr. Gaffney also told The Star-Ledger newspaper of Newark, N.J., that the $100,000 sanction, imposed in February, was "outrageous'' and "mind-boggling.'' The lawyer had told the court that such a penalty would leave him broke.

The district so far has been unsuccessful in its efforts to get paid.

'They Should Be Penalized'

The fine in the Kittatinny case is said by legal experts to be among the largest ever in a case involving a school district. Such rulings are making Rule 11 a popular tactic for districts seeking to ward off costly federal suits over issues ranging from alleged discrimination to the content of curricular materials.

"We advise attorneys for districts to use Rule 11,'' said August W. Steinhilber, the general counsel of the National School Boards Association. "If someone is filing frivolous lawsuits, they should be penalized.''

Rule 11 was strengthened about six years ago when the provision for financial sanctions was added, Mr. Steinhilber said. The provision applies only to the federal court system; most states' civil-procedure rules do not authorize similar sanctions, he said.

Districts are equally subject to the federal rules, and some have been accused of violating Rule 11. But the rule appeals to school officials as a way of recouping legal costs and deterring future suits.

In 1991, for example, a federal appeals court imposed sanctions on a lawyer and a plaintiff who sued the Joshua, Tex., district over its policy of searching students for drugs. Finding that the suit was frivolous, a federal district judge set the penalty at nearly $85,000, although an appeals court later reduced the sanction to $21,500.

In another case, a federal judge last year granted the request of the Kenosha, Wis., district to impose sanctions on Superintendent Anthony Biscaglia, who had sued the school board in a dispute over his performance. The order for sanctions equal to the board's legal expenses is being appealed.

However, not all districts' requests for sanctions have been granted. In March, a federal judge rejected the Philadelphia system's request for Rule 11 sanctions against plaintiffs who had sued in a dispute over whether a school choir could sing religious songs. The judge who had dismissed the suit said that while the plaintiffs' legal arguments were novel, they were neither unreasonable nor frivolous.

"Rule 11 sanctions are never appropriate when a party's only sin was being ... unsuccessful,'' U.S. District Judge Clifford Scott Green wrote.

Discipline Dispute

The $100,000 sanction against Mr. Gaffney stems from a case he filed in 1991 on behalf of Robert Giangrasso, a Kittatinny student disciplined for allegedly threatening to punch a teacher.

After a brief hearing before school officials, the student was suspended and later placed in homebound instruction. Mr. Giangrasso, who was under an individualized education plan for a learning disability, was placed at another school before returning to Kittatinny and graduating last year.

The suit claimed that the student was suspended without proper notice of the charges and that officials conspired to persuade his mother to place him in a school for the emotionally disturbed.

The district asked that the suit be dismissed, arguing both that the student had been given two suspension hearings and that he in fact was never placed in a school for emotionally disturbed students. U.S. District Judge H. Lee Sarokin granted the district's motion last November and ordered Rule 11 sanctions imposed on Mr. Gaffney because the suit was not well grounded in the facts.

Judge Pisano, who reviewed the case to make a recommendation of sanctions to Judge Sarokin, noted Mr. Gaffney's "history of fierce disputes'' with the Kittatinny district.

In one case, according to court documents, Mr. Gaffney came to the school and confronted officials, threatening to "smear'' the superintendent in The New York Times.

In another incident cited in legal papers, Mr. Gaffney appeared uninvited at the district's law firm, searching for documents and calling some members of the firm "snake attorneys.''

Mr. Gaffney bears "an obvious animosity'' toward the district and its officials, Judge Pisano wrote.

In an affidavit filed with the judge, however, Mr. Gaffney stated that his relationship with his alma mater had been wrongly characterized as hostile. "Not only am I not hostile,'' he wrote, "but I am considered by many who personally know me as being rather passive.''

He added that he had "admiration and respect'' for "many of the professionals'' at the school.

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