Superintendent Roy Romer and the Los Angeles Unified School District filed a federal lawsuit Monday over a Web site that uses Romer’s name and a picture of his face, but contains gay pornographic images.
The Los Angeles Unified School District (the “LAUSD”) is the largest (in terms of number of students) public school system in California and the second-largest in the United States. Only the New York City Department of Education has a larger student population.
The lawsuit alleges David Grant has been promoting the site royromer.com by sending illegal spam e-mail to more than 500 district employees.
Romer and the district also claim Grant intended to lure the district’s some 700,000 underage students to the site.
It was April 28, 1995, and David Grant, an aircraft mechanics student at a Los Angeles Unified vocational education center in Van Nuys, was filling a split rim tire with air when suddenly his whole life changed.
The tire exploded and the 22-year-old suffered such serious injuries that his left leg had to be amputated above the knee and his right leg sustained severe and permanent damage.
That was the beginning of what spiraled into a 10-year saga with the nation’s second-largest school district fighting him all the way except for paying his current medical bills.
But Grant took his case public in a unique way. He used the Internet. He bought the domain name of LAUSD Superintendent Roy Romer — royromer.com — and domain names of the workers’ compensation attorney retained by the district, his own workers’ comp attorney, and even Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslovsky [sic] to whom Grant had turned for help.
It was war, complete with pictures of the LAUSD superintendent under the title “Roy Romer’s House of Ill Repute,” diatribes about the case and even pornographic images.
Last Tuesday, Grant won the war — a $360,000 payoff contingent on his ending his Internet rampage. The Los Angeles school board agreed to the deal behind closed doors without any public discussion or clear public notice.
“At first blush, one would hope that the amount that was paid had nothing to do with returning royromer.com because there seems to be the potential for a conflict of interest there,” said prominent criminal defense attorney Mark Geragos.
“The perception is the improper use of funds. Those two issues (workers comp’ and the domain name) should not have been linked.”
“It’s very unusual and obviously he’s quite ingenious. Sometimes that’s the toughest kind of person to fight. Sometimes a person who’s improper can be a formidable foe. It kind of sounds like the reason he was so successful is because he used such unconventional tactics.”
Grant, who is believed to now live in Queensland, Australia, could not be reached for comment.
Romer declined to comment.
LAUSD general counsel Kevin Reed defended the deal, insisting the district did not pay off Grant just to shut him up.
“We’re not paying any additional money for the purchase of the domain name. The monetary settlement is to compensate Mr. Grant for the injuries under the workers’ comp rule,” Reed said. “We reached an agreement with Grant on the basic principles that we want nothing more to do with him and he wants nothing more to do with us.”
Reed said a workers’ comp expert estimated the cost of Grant’s medical care for the rest of his life to come up with the settlement number. The costs included replacing prosthetics, support hose and deburring the bone in his leg.
Grant’s former attorney, Jeffrey Linnetz, a certified specialist in workers’ compensation, said the accident and his legal fight tormented the young man.
“He had this horrendous accident where he was filling a tire with air without instruction and the expert described it as filling a cocktail glass with a fire hose,” he said.
“He was very young when it happened, a very bright young man with great potential, and very good-looking, and the legal process took a toll on him. I know he became very frustrated with the limitation of the workers’ comp recovery … and they were manifested through what he did through the Web site.”
Grant felt from the beginning that he had a right to be adequately compensated for the pain and suffering of the loss.
But an obscure labor law, not familiar to most lawyers but picked up on by a few LAUSD attorneys, made Grant, a tuition-paying student at the North Valley Occupational Center Aircraft Mechanics Program at Van Nuys Airport — which was run by LAUSD — technically a district employee.
As an employee, he could not file a civil suit against the district and receive the damages that would be available to a litigant outside of workers’ comp, in spite of the tremendous negligence, Linnetz said.
“Fed up with delays and ignorance,” Grant wrote on the royromer.com site that he bought in 2002. His intent was to write his “story for the world to see in the hopes that the media will put this story to the public and demand action.”
He also wrote: “Mr. Grant, after losing a leg to incompetence, watching seven years of legal absurdities, negotiating with a painfully slow insurance carrier … has had enough.”
While disconcerted, LAUSD officials did not take action until 2004, when Grant put up a picture of the former governor of Colorado with the title “Roy Romer’s House of Ill Repute” and included pornographic images on the site.
A court ordered the material be removed, but Grant kept the site to air his frustrations about the legal proceedings, citing in detail the progress and timeline of his lawsuit.
Under the agreement, Grant will surrender the domain name to the district.
“We believe we reached a fair value to allow Mr. Grant to cover his future medical needs arising out of the terrible injuries he suffered as a student in a vocational program, and he is agreeing to return the royromer.com domain name to the district and refraining from trying to acquire and use other domain names of other district officials,” Reed said.
Bob Stern, president of the center for governmental studies, said he sees no ethical conflict in the settlement.
“Roy Romer is a public official and he (Grant) has done some things with the site that shouldn’t have been done. I don’t have any problems with the settlement — it’s just an indication of what he’s (Grant) has done in the past,” Stern said. “The question really is the district is basically saying we don’t want you saying negative things on a site that says royromer.com.”
The district’s many critics see the case in a different light.
“It’s a horrible tragedy, but what I find so fabulous is the fact that he wouldn’t be taken down, he found a way to be creative to keep up the fight. He found ways to do it,” said former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, whose mayoral campaign last year turned breaking up the district a major public issue.
“He’s the hero of the story … It’s David versus Goliath, but sometimes you can win if you fight long and hard enough.”
The treatment David Grant received from the Los Angeles Unified School District after he was partially disabled in a campus accident a decade ago is shameful.
The former vocational student lost a leg — and maybe his youth — and was compensated as little as the district could legally get away with, his current medical bills. That turned out to be not much, thanks to an obscure and nonsensical law that classifies vocational students as employees, thus limiting their ability to sue.
After years of struggling with an unresponsive bureaucracy, workers’ comp and insurance companies, it’s not surprising the frustration drove Grant to extreme measures. What was surprising was the novel — and rather personal — way he did it.
Grant bought domain names for those who he felt were obstructing justice in his quest. One of them, royromer.com, bashed the LAUSD superintendent personally. The site included diatribes against Romer, quotes and, incongruously, pornography. Clearly, Grant had gone over the edge and had nowhere to turn.
Shockingly, his campaign worked. After more than a decade of rejecting his every claim, the school board agreed last week behind closed doors and without public discussion or adequate notice to pay Grant $360,000.
That payment is not for his pain and suffering but solely for medical bills for the rest of his life — or so LAUSD officials would have us believe.
The settlement is contingent on Grant leaving Romer and everyone else he’s harassed alone. He also has to surrender ownership of royromer.com to the LAUSD, which may be the real point to the deal.
If this was the right thing to do, it was the right thing to do a decade ago, before Grant went on the offensive. People harmed by the LAUSD shouldn’t have to go to extreme and absurd measures to get a fair deal.
Of course, if the payoff was for what could be construed as Internet blackmail, school officials have made a big mistake. By kowtowing to such tactics, they only will encourage imitators to use the Internet for abusive attacks on public officials.