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A private, attorney-run company has sued eight Bay Area school districts that, it says, have failed to comply with the state public records laws. While one school district has paid $2,500 to Nolex Group to settle a lawsuit, others are refusing, saying that the litigation is a money-making operation. After being contacted by the news media on Friday, Walnut Creek-based Nolex said it planned to drop six suits it had filed against San Mateo County school districts. Nolex’s change of heart caught San Mateo school district lawyer Lee Thompson by surprise. Earlier that day, he and Nolex attorney Byron Done had discussed depositions for the case. A case management conference was scheduled before San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Quentin Kopp on Nov. 30. Thompson, a San Mateo deputy county counsel, questioned the motives for Nolex’s suits. “These guys are trying to line their pockets at the expense of schoolchildren,” he said. All of the school districts have a similar story, said Thompson, who represents Woodside, Ravenswood, Jefferson, Menlo Park and Redwood City elementary school districts as well as Sequoia Union High School District in the litigation. In early August, when many district officials were on vacation, Thompson said, Nolex faxed requests to the six districts in San Mateo, as well as school districts in Alameda and Emeryville, asking for the school board members’ statement of economic interest �� a document that details an elected official’s investments. When the districts allegedly didn’t comply within the statutory period, the company sued. The Alameda district successfully demurred, while Emery settled for a reported $2,500. The goal was to score attorneys fees, said David Nied, who defended the Alameda district in a Nolex lawsuit. “It was a holdup lawsuit,” said Nied, of San Francisco’s Chapman Popik & White, adding that Nolex had requested $1,800 in attorneys fees in exchange for dropping the suit. Done and Nolex President Scott Hammel vehemently denied accusations that the company sued the schools solely to collect attorneys fees. Done said that Nolex is exercising its right to obtain public documents. Hammel defended the fees, noting that under state law, Nolex can ask for attorneys fees if it had to go to court to get public records. Emery settled because it realized that it was liable for attorneys fees, he said. Hammel declined to say why his company was seeking the documents or to describe Nolex as a business. The Public Records Act and Political Reform Act don’t require Nolex to reveal any information about itself, Hammel said. “The story is why the school districts did not provide this information on a timely basis,” Hammel said. “Nolex is a privately held corporation. It doesn’t matter what it does.” Nolex Group appears to be based from Hammel’s house in Walnut Creek. Its Sorrel Drive address is the same as the address listed under Hammel’s name on the State Bar’s Web site. A woman who answered the door on Friday morning said that Hammel works from home. “I don’t believe that Nolex is interested in those Form 700s,” said Thompson, adding that Nolex’s information request was too vague. In court, when the San Mateo school districts made an unsuccessful motion for a demurrer, “Judge Kopp asked why Nolex wanted those forms, and [Done] had no answer,” Thompson said. Nolex wouldn’t have had to file lawsuits if the San Mateo school districts had not failed to comply with the public records laws, Done said. “That’s what this case is about,” he said. “There’s no money in suing school districts.”

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