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Court Sides With District Employee Who Balked at Order to Purge Emails

An appellate court said this month that a jury got it right when it awarded a Fallbrook school district employee over $1 million when she was fired after refusing a supervisor’s directive to delete old emails from the district’s server.

A fired school district IT director who objected to orders to wipe out the email archive system was rightfully awarded over $1 million by a jury in 2015, an appellate court decided this month.

Elaine Allyn accused the Fallbrook Union Elementary School District of wrongful termination in 2012, and a jury unanimously awarded her $1.05 million for lost income and $148,000 in damages in 2015.

“Obviously, I am happy with the outcome of the appellate court. I think that it vindicates me,” said Allyn, who has spent the last couple years working for a private company. “I just really hope that the district lets this be the end and that they accept the outcome and we can move on with our lives. … I am shocked it has been five and a half years. It’s been a long road.”

The district’s legal fees fighting Allyn’s claims have cost more than $800,000 to date. Because the 5,000-student district is part of the county schools risk management joint powers authority, that group paid the fees and was reimbursed for $300,000 by an insurance carrier, according to San Diego County Office of Education spokeswoman Music Watson.

Allyn may finally see the jury award following the latest July 11 court decision – that too would come from the insurance carrier – though a statement provided by Fallbrook’s assistant superintendent Bill Billingsley said the school board is deciding next steps with legal counsel.

The statement, provided on behalf of Fallbrook’s superintendent Candace Singh, said in part: “The District is clearly disappointed in the appellate court’s decision and is reviewing its options to challenge it further. Although the jury found in the plaintiff’s favor, the leadership of FUESD steadfastly maintains that Mrs. Allyn was not a whistleblower, and that her own misconduct justified her termination from the District.”

The loss is just one of several in recent years litigated by prolific schools attorney Dan Shinoff, whose San Diego firm has received preferential treatment by the schools JPA.

The appellate court also upheld the trial court’s denial of Allyn’s request for $791,750 in attorney’s fees, citing a law shielding quasi-municipal corporations from such costs.

In its decision, the appellate panel said the award was just and aligned with the jury instructions requested by the district, which asked, in part, if Allyn “believed that reducing the District’s e-mail retention time would violate state and federal rules or regulations,” and, “That Elaine Allyn’s raising an objection to reducing the District’s e-mail retention time was a motivating reason for [the District’s] decision to discharge Elaine Allyn.”

The appellate court determined it was not relevant whether the district’s 2011 directive to delete all district emails on the server and reduce email retention from three years to three months was actually illegal.

San Diegans for Open Government recently claimed San Diego Unified School District would run afoul of the law if it proceeded with similar plans to quickly purge all district emails older than 6 months without a board vote or public discussion. San Diego Unified staff halted that plan, and will propose a one-year email retention to the school board Tuesday night, according to the meeting agenda. San Diego Unified staff claim exorbitant email storage costs are motivating the change.

Allyn said Fallbrook school leaders wanted to delete district emails in 2011 following news of investigations at the nearby Poway Unified School District involving its bonds, and a probe into contractor relationships at South County schools districts, including the Sweetwater Union High School District.

At trial, Allyn testified business chief Ray Proctor said at a summer 2011 cabinet meeting, “we needed to make sure our house was clean,” according to the appellate court decision.

Proctor did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

The Fallbrook district said Allyn’s firing in May 2012 was justified and accused her of hacking and snooping in coworker email accounts, allegations Allyn successfully fought.

Current Fallbrook Union Elementary School District procedures say “District emails will only be backed up for a period of one year. Email trash folders may be purged as often as every 30 days by the District’s information technology department.”

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