Fresh off a multimillion-dollar victory described as one of the largest settlements in the School District of Palm Beach County’s history, attorney Marc A. Wites knows he’s helped four young women take a key step in overcoming a traumatic past.
But he can’t help thinking about a fifth—a child whose accusations of sexual molestation at the hands of former second grade teacher Blake Sinrod came too late and fell outside the statute of limitations. That girl’s claim preceded the accusations of four others, who won a hard-fought $3.58 million settlement with the school board after more than a decade of litigation.
Sinrod pleaded guilty to molesting two children.
“I’ve always felt badly for the first girl,” said Wites, plaintiffs lawyer and founding shareholder at Wites & Kapetan in Lighthouse Point. “In other parts of the country she would have been allowed to bring her case. … It’s always difficult for me to see a client who didn’t get to have her day in court.”
Wites’ victory captured national media attention for a case involving women who’ve been litigating against the school board since they were children, raising allegations of sexual abuse against a former teacher at Coral Sunset Elementary School in Boca Raton.
The women are now 22. They were 10 years old when their families brought claims in 2006 on behalf of then-elementary school students, who said Sinrod molested them the previous year, when they were in the third grade. They got some closure on Oct. 28—after about 12 years of court fights—when the school board approved the nearly $3.6 million settlement that included $3 million in indemnity, $545,000 in attorney fees and $35,000 in costs.
“We were little girls,” one of the woman, identified in court papers as Janie Doe A, wrote in a media statement after the settlement. “Little girls who were brave enough, strong enough and had the courage to use our voices to speak up, to tell and to get help.”
Wites stepped into the litigation in 2011, when the suit was about five years old. He was instrumental in framing a landmark settlement in the fiercely contested dispute that reached the Florida Supreme Court, where justices rejected a school board attempt to stifle a portion of Wites’ amended complaint for plaintiffs that would otherwise have fallen outside the five-year statute of limitations.
“It was very trying and traumatic for (the girls) and for their parents,” Wites said. “The girls were deposed over and over again. … That was very hard for me as their lawyer, and infinitely harder for them.”
But in the days following their triumph, Wites wished the system allowed the first Janie Doe to pursue her claim.
That child claimed Sinrod molested her during the 2002-2003 school year. By the time her parents filed suit, the court ruled the five-year statute of limitations had expired.
“They never again sent their daughter back to that school,” Wites said. “They moved from Palm Beach County to another county. They no longer wanted to be involved in the legal process.”
School board attorney Dale L. Friedman of Conroy Simberg in Hollywood declined to comment. Her defense strategy hinged on the notion of comparative negligence in an attempt to reduce the school board’s financial exposure. It seemed to publicly backfire, as the Sun Sentinel and other media reported the school board sought to assign blame to the children for the abuse.
Meanwhile, Wites and his firm took steps to protect the four children who came forward after the first girl sounded the alarm about abuse at Coral Sunset Elementary School. His firm shielded the girls’ identities in what Wites described as an environment of fear and intimidation, where other children and parents were afraid to testify. It also made female attorneys and employees available if the children became uncomfortable talking to men.
“No amount of money will ever erase what these girls have had to live with,” Wites said. “They would pay anything to have it not have happened to them.”
In the wake of the multimillion-dollar settlement, Wites said he and his clients wished the first child had been able to achieve a similar result.
“This is unfortunately a unique aspect of the Florida statute of limitations,” he said. “Some other states allow minors to become adults and bring suit.”
Janie Does v. Palm Beach County School Board
Case: Janie Does v. Palm Beach County School Board
Case No.: 2006CA007503 MB
Filing date: July 26, 2006
Mediation settlement date: Aug. 17 (Palm Beach County School Board granted final approval to settlement Oct. 18)
Judge: Palm Beach Circuit Judge Joseph Marx
Plaintiffs attorney: Marc A. Wites, Wites & Kapetan, Lighthouse Point
Defense attorneys: Dale L. Friedman, Conroy Simberg, Hollywood
Settlement amount: $3.58 million