By Alberto Garcia
Two local school board members and their District that blocked a husband and wife from posting on social media accounts lost their legal battle and the District may now have to pay more than $425,000 in legal fees in the case.
Poway Unified School District and two Trustees, Thomas Joseph (TJ) Zane and Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff, blocked two residents, Christopher and Kimberly Garnier, from Facebook and Twitter accounts beginning in 2017 after the couple posted hundreds of messages on the social media accounts.
Although Zane’s and O’Connor-Ratcliff’s social media accounts were their own personal profiles, the two elected officials often posted messages about their district and schools’ achievements, students, and other political messages for their own campaigns, making the accounts a public space under First Amendment protections. Members of the public are allowed to post comments on all three accounts.
Beginning in 2017, Christopher Garnier began posting messages on O’Connor-Ratcliff’s Twitter account. During the trial, Garnier admitted to posting 226 messages within 10 minutes on one day in October 2017. He also posted 42 messages on her Facebook account. He was eventually blocked by the District, Zane, and O’Connor-Ratcliff.
Mr. Garnier also posted comments on Zane’s Facebook account under each of Zane’s previous posts. Zane admitted to using a filter to block Garnier’s posts.
Kimberly Garbier was blocked from posting on O’Connor-Ratcliff’s Facebook page.
After being blocked on social media, the Garniers retained San Diego attorney Cory Briggs to file a lawsuit in federal court claiming the blocks violate the couple’s freedoms of speech and expression.
A lawsuit filed in October 2017 claimed that the District, Zane, and O’Connor-Ratcliff violated the couple’s “rights of free expression and to criticize the government as guaranteed by the United States Constitution” and the “California Constitution“. The lawsuit also claimed that that the conduct of the defendants “chilled [the Garniers’] political speech for fear of being the victim of further retaliation and criticism suppression by Defendants and other public agencies and officials.”
A two-day non-jury trial was held in September 2020 before Judge Roger T. Benitez. During the trial, Zane testified that he blocked Garnier because the messages were disruptive and “spamming”. Zane also claimed he used his social media as a “bulletin board” to post his own messages, but the Judge found that Zane allowed others to post their own comments.
Judge Benitez took the case under submission and finally issued his ruling on January 14th, finding that “Defendants are hereby ordered to unblock Plaintiffs on their public Facebook pages and Defendant O’Connor Ratcliff is ordered to unblock Plaintiff Christopher Garnier on her public Twitter account.”
The ruling was in line with several prior cases in which social media pages for public officials and government entities have been ruled to be public spaces, much like standing outside of a government building. Then-President Donald Trump faced a similar case in 2019 when he blocked people from his Twitter account, but a federal appeals court ruled that Trump’s blocking was “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination”.
The Poway case was a clear victory for the Garniers, and now their attorney, Cory Briggs, has filed a motion to collect his fees from the District and/or Zane and O’Connor Ratcliff. Briggs took the case on a contingency basis, meaning he did not get paid by the plaintiffs during the more than three years since the case was filed, and could only recover fees if the case was successful.
As the prevailing party, the Garniers’ attorney is entitled to legal fees and costs incurred in the case, but the Judge must rule on the exact amount to be awarded. A hearing has been set for March 1st.
Briggs filed a motion for fees that calculated his total fees and costs to be $283,832.00, but he has also asked the Judge to multiply that by up to 1.5 times to compensate Briggs for the delay in receiving payment. An established method to calculate such fees known as the “lodestar” is used to create a “reasonable fee” that is “sufficient to induce a capable attorney to undertake the representation of a meritorious civil rights case.”
If Judge Benitez awards fees and costs under the lodestar method, the total could total up to $425,748.
Poway Unified School District, Zane, and O’Conner-Radcliffe did not comment after the Judge’s verdict was announced.