January 31, 2012, Tyler Henson filed suit in Montana U.S. District Court claiming he was discriminated against on the basis of disability his senior year at Baker High School.
Posted May 2, 2014
January 31, 2012, Tyler Henson filed suit in Montana U.S. District Court claiming he was discriminated against on the basis of disability his senior year at Baker High School. Specifically, he claimed that he endured a hostile environment when School District personnel communicated with him about accommodations in February of his senior year. Over the course of the litigation, Mr. Henson dismissed that claim. He also claimed he should have been named the valedictorian of his class and received scholarships. He also claimed that the School District did not provide him with an alternative education.
The School District vigorously defended the claim based upon federal law that states there is no obligation to provide a Section 504 accommodation plan for temporary conditions, and they followed Mr. Henson’s treating physician’s instructions, which stated that his condition was a temporary condition. The School District also challenged Mr. Henson’s failure to file his claim timely and failure to exhaust his administrative remedies. The School District also challenged his claim for damages and determined that the most Mr. Henson could have received in scholarships was $400.00. The School District filed a motion for summary judgment seeking dismissal of the entire suit. Mr. Henson also filed a motion for summary judgment seeking the Court’s ruling that the School District was liable. The standard for imposing liability is very high, “deliberate indifference”, and the School District took the position that it did not act deliberately to harm Mr. Henson.
In this type of claim, if Mr. Henson had prevailed either through summary judgment or at trial, the Court is required to award attorneys’ fees to Mr. Henson’s attorneys. After taking 16 depositions and proceeding through the course of this litigation, those fees were extensive. Had the matter proceeded to trial on April 29, 2014, both parties would have incurred an additional $30-$40,000.00 in attorneys’ fees. The biggest financial risk for the School District in proceeding to trial was the award of Mr. Henson’s attorneys’ fees if he prevailed on liability, even if the jury found that Mr. Henson suffered no damages.
The parties were ordered by the Court to participate in a mediation conducted by another federal court magistrate, U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith Strong, on March 5, 2014. The School District’s insurer participated in the mediation. Superintendent Schillinger and board vice-chair Mike Gentilini also attended the mediation. The parties reached a settlement at the mediation conference wherein Mr. Henson released all claims against the School District, Mr. Henson acknowledged that there was no finding or admission of liability, and the School District’s insurer paid Mr. Henson $75,000.00. The settlement terms were ratified at a duly-noticed board meeting on March 19, 2014. The School District’s deductible of $1,000.00 had already been paid. Mr. Henson initially demanded $250,000.00.
The School District has not admitted any wrongdoing in this matter and asserted throughout the litigation and in the settlement agreement that it did not violate any of Mr. Henson’s rights. There was no finding of liability. The decision to settle was an economic decision made by the School District’s insurer. By settling for this amount, the insurer chose to pay less than the attorneys’ fees expended to date and eliminated its obligation to pay additional attorneys’ fees for the School District to proceed to trial. By settling, the insurer also eliminated the risk of being ordered to pay Mr. Henson’s attorneys’ fees should he prevail at trial. Even if the School District prevailed at trial, Mr. Henson would have had the right to appeal the decision which would have led to additional attorneys’ fees.