Attorney fires back over McClain case
A letter from Dale Gronemeier, attorney for former Del Mar Union School District Superintendent Sharon McClain, to DMUSD Board of Trustees attorney Daniel Shinoff offered responses to a number of Shinoff’s comments made in an interview published on DelMarTimes.net.
The letter, dated April 26, was “a demand on behalf of Dr. Sharon McClain” that Shinoff retract four “false and defamatory statements” made in that interview.
The first issue concerns the $16,000 payment the district was to make to California’s State Teachers’ Retirement System on behalf of McClain, and the ensuing dispute over a change in the language of this section of her contract.
Gronemeier objected to Shinoff’s statement in the interview that “there is no paperwork to support a change in her contract.”
“As you well know because [you] have received the document on multiple occasions, the Board of Education agreed on June 17, 2009 to the change proposed by Dr. McClain — but then after it hired you, the board’s majority and you refused to acknowledge the board’s action,” Gronemeier wrote.
Gronemeier attached to his letter a copy of the minutes of the DMUSD’s June 17, 2009, special board meeting that included item #5 which read: “Motion to approve revisions to contract between the Board of Trustees of the Del Mar Union School District and Sharon McClain, Ed.D.” The motion was made by Katherine White, seconded by Comischell Rodriguez and passed unanimously. The contents and exact wording of the revision were not revealed in the minutes.
Related to the STRS issue, Gronemeier said Shinoff, by innuendo, blamed McClain “for the breakdown in settlement negotiations.”
“As you well know,” Gronemeier wrote, “settlement negotiations were sabotaged by the board majority because Dr. McClain made a settlement proposal and proposed a mediator to try to get the matter settled, but the board declined to even respond or further negotiate in response to her last settlement offer.”
Gronemeier said these statements “have a defamatory sting because they attribute to Dr. McClain the conduct of demanding that the board do something it had not agreed to do.”
Holding an open meeting
Gronemeier’s second concern was Shinoff’s statement that McClain “chose not to have those [charges against her] heard in open session despite the fact that she asked for an open session.” This referred to the school board meeting on March 31 when she was fired.
But Gronemeier said McClain did ask for an open session in order to hear the charges against her. “The interactions which you attempt to mischaracterize as Dr. McClain choosing not to have the cause(s) heard in public arose from sneaky conduct on your part to which Dr. McClain objected,” he wrote.
Gronemeier said Shinoff told McClain just before the meeting began that each party should be allowed to speak for 20 minutes. “A fair-minded person would have communicated this expectation in advance rather than trying to disadvantage his adversary by communicated [sic] it at the 11th hour,” Gronemeier wrote.
Gronemeier said McClain had expected to speak for five minutes, a time limit to which Shinoff agreed just before the meeting began, at McClain’s urging. But McClain’s attorney said McClain still expected the charges to be delivered against her, in those five minutes, and was prepared “to respond to whatever you or the board majority had dreamed up. But Dr. McClain is not long-winded, and she knows that there is no valid cause to terminate her contract. So she would have had a short message if you had articulated the purported cause(s).”
He said this “has a defamatory sting” because it suggests “that Dr. McClain has something to hide and did not want the purported cause(s) part of the public record.” It also relieves “the board majority and you of the responsibility of articulating them.”
Cause for termination
Thirdly, Gronemeier said Shinoff implied that McClain “is lying about knowing the cause(s) for termination of her contract.” McClain has responded “to every potential ’cause’ to terminate her contract that you have drafted for the board majority … by rebutting what was false in such documents and by remediating where there was even arguably anything to remediate,” he wrote.
Gronemeier said she “was and is mystified as to what purported cause(s)” exist for terminating her. He said this “has a defamatory sting because it asserts that Dr. McClain is lying to the community” as to what her knowledge of the cause(s) may be.
Gronemeier’s fourth point challenges Shinoff’s statement that McClain’s action to release Shinoff’s invoices last December was a violation of the law.
In the April 15 interview, Shinoff said, “How could she who had retained a lawyer go through attorney-client communications and decide what she was going to release? She couldn’t do that. She’s not a lawyer.”
Gronemeier said this comment was objectionable because McClain did not release the invoices on her own but had an attorney redact the invoice descriptions.
“Your invoices are a public record; the public is entitled to know the fees that are being paid to you,” he wrote. “The invoices have no legend indicating that they are protected by the attorney-client privilege (nor are they nor would that insulate them from public disclosure).”
He said the invoices were available to Dr. McClain “in the ordinary course of her duties” and that “it is simply untrue that Dr. McClain violated any law by disclosing those invoices.”
This too “has a defamatory sting because it asserts that Dr. McClain is breaking the law,” Gronemeier wrote.
In conclusion, Gronemeier demanded retractions of Shinoff’s statements. “They create liability for slander and conspiracy to libel for your client, for you and for your law firm,” he wrote, adding that a retraction would not necessarily eliminate legal harm to McClain but that McClain “would prefer to avoid litigating these issues and would forego suing for the defamations if they are appropriately retracted.”
The letter was sent to Shinoff, with copies to the five DMUSD board members, McClain and Marsha Sutton, who conducted the April 15 interview.
The complete letter, all eight pages, was posted on Facebook and a Del Mar blogspot site on April 27. McClain acknowledged she released the letter to a parent in the district.
In response to Gronemeier’s letter, Shinoff replied within one hour with the following terse message: “I have reviewed your letter of April 26, 2010, demanding that I retract statements that I made to the reporter for the Del Mar Times. The reporter correctly reported what I said and I am confident that I can prove the truth of every statement that I made to her.
“I do not believe that you can show falsity in any statement, even by innuendo or implication. Further, I believe that a court would determine that Dr. McClain is a public figure and the discussion is of interest to the public, so you would have a very difficult time with a defamation action, even if there had been a factual misstatement. Finally, you would be subject to dismissal under the anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) statute if you did proceed with litigation over the alleged defamation.
“I will not agree to retract anything that I said to the press. I stand by both the words I said, and the gist of the words.”
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