As anyone with kids knows, school funding votes can get testy. But seldom do things get heated up enough to spawn multiple lawsuits and a formal complaint against a lawyer. However, that’s the case in two Litchfield County towns, where questions about a June 2013 vote on funding for high school renovations has stirred legal controversy.
Attorney Deborah Stevenson, who represents a group of parents, made headlines recently when she said she would “withdraw” statements that accused school and town officials of perpetrating a fraud on the court. As part of the settlement, which was prompted by a request for sanctions from another attorney, she also made a $750 payment to the court.
The formal complaint against Stevenson came from William Stevens, who represents the town of Woodbury, which is one of the municipalities in the Region 14 school district. “This is the first and only time I’ve ever filed a sanction against a lawyer in 33 years,” said Stevens, of Watertown’s Slavin, Stauffacher & Scott.
The towns of Woodbury and Bethlehem make up Region 14. In June 2013, they asked residents to approve a $63.8 million renovation of the district’s Nonewaug High School. Voters did, in fact, approve the spending.
However, questions soon arose as to whether the vote was valid after it was discovered that legal notices were not published in a local newspaper, as required by law, in advance of the referendum. And so Woodbury and Bethlehem filed a “friendly” challenge to the referendum in Litchfield Superior Court. The aim was to get a judge’s opinion on whether the referendum was valid.
Shortly thereafter, Stevenson and her clients instigated a similar lawsuit in Waterbury Superior Court against Woodbury, Bethlehem and Region 14. Stevenson represents residents of Woodbury and Bethlehem who, although they have not taken a public position, appear to be opposed to spending the money on the school.
In December 2013, a Litchfield Superior Court judge then ruled that the high school referendum vote was valid. At that point, Woodbury and Bethlehem asked that Stevenson’s Waterbury lawsuit be dismissed. The judge issued no ruling at that point, and Stevenson, among others, was under the impression that there would be no further action on the school project until the Waterbury case was resolved.
Also in December, the Region 14 school board building committee discussed the project and the litigation. Without taking any vote, committee members wondered whether it might be possible to move ahead with the project. But that discussion, which was written about in Voices, a community weekly newspaper, apparently upset Stevenson and her clients.
She then filed a motion for contempt against Region 14 school district and the towns of Woodbury and Bethlehem, accusing them of lying, perpetrating a fraud upon the court and reneging on an agreement to hold off on school planning until the Waterbury case was resolved. That motion, in turn, led to Stevens filing a motion for sanctions against his opposing counsel.
Stevenson said that her clients filed a lengthy memorandum in objection to the motion for sanctions. “The plaintiffs were fully prepared and looking forward to going forward with oral argument on the motion for sanctions,” Stevenson said.
Stevenson said, however, that a Superior Court judge ordered both sides to discuss the issue in an attempt to reach a settlement. “The parties acquiesced, discussion ensued, resulting in an agreement to resolve the issue,” Stevenson said.
Stevens said that the towns of Woodbury and Bethlehem filed briefs in support of their motions for sanctions and were fully prepared to present oral arguments.
“Although we were fully prepared, we agreed with the request of the presiding judge to discuss the matter and try to arrive at an amicable resolution,” Stevens said. “It is my hope as we go forward Ms. Stevenson recognizes and appreciates the consequences of her actions and that she needs to exercise more care in what she files and what she says in her filings.”
On March 5, Stevenson addressed the court: “On behalf of myself and my clients, I withdraw any statements I have made in my contempt motion that was directed at the town of Woodbury, Bethlehem, their First Selectmen and their attorneys.”
However, Stevenson told the Law Tribune that her statement to the court was not an apology. Nor, she said, was the $750 sanctions levied against her. In a prepared statement, Stevenson said that “all of the plaintiffs, jointly, agreed to pay the one-time total amount of $750.”
“There was no admission or finding of wrongdoing, and the plaintiffs, not I, paid to the defendants in settlement of the issue $750,” she said in a statement.