Tribune sues Lucia Mar for release of accused wrestling coach’s personnel records

The San Luis Obispo Tribune on Friday filed a lawsuit against the Lucia Mar Unified School District over its decision to block the release of records related to ex-girls wrestling coach Justin Magdaleno, who resigned from Nipomo High School in June amid sexual assault allegations from at least one student.
The San Luis Obispo Tribune on Friday filed a lawsuit against the Lucia Mar Unified School District over its decision to block the release of records related to ex-girls wrestling coach Justin Magdaleno, who resigned from Nipomo High School in June amid sexual assault allegations from at least one student. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The Tribune is suing the Lucia Mar Unified School District to obtain records of its response to allegations that a high school girls wrestling coach sexually abused his players.

On Friday, a San Francisco-based law firm representing The Tribune and parent company McClatchy Co., filed a lawsuit in San Luis Obispo Superior Court against the school district, alleging that for nearly a year administrators wrongfully rejected the newspaper’s requests for records related to ex-Nipomo High School girls wrestling coach Justin Magdaleno, who resigned in June amid sexual assault allegations from at least one student.

Following a roughly five-month investigation, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office recommended that county prosecutors file child molestation charges against Magdaleno, but the District Attorney’s Office declined, saying they were not confident they could prove the allegations beyond a reasonable doubt.

Magdaleno, who collected about $63,000 in pay while out on leave for nine months, quietly resigned from the district June 30 with an additional severance package of roughly $32,000 and an agreement from the district not to reveal the allegations against him to any potential future employers.

“The records requested (by The Tribune) concern the conduct of the public’s business and are vital to enable the public, particularly the residents of San Luis Obispo County and the Lucia Mar School District, to assess whether and to what extent the (district), and schools in general, protect their students against sexual harassment and assault,” the lawsuit, written by attorney Karl Olson, reads.

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Nipomo Coach2
Former Nipomo High School girls wrestling coach Justin Magdaleno during a practice. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

“Without access to the records requested, the public will be left in the dark both about the conduct of Mr. Magdaleno and about the response of district officials to the reports of said conduct, both in this particular case and others involving similar allegations,” Olson continued.

Amy Jacobs, spokeswoman for the Lucia Mar School District, wrote in an email Friday that the district “has been working closely with its legal counsel on the release of documents relating to the Magdaleno matter and is confident that its actions are compliant with applicable law.”

In October 2017, former Tribune reporter Travis Gibson broke the story of allegations against Magdaleno after he interviewed parents of Nipomo High School students on the girls wrestling team.

The parents told Gibson that about 10 team members had come forward in early October with accusations of “wrongful touching and verbal comments that were not appropriate” by Magdaleno. Another parent said his conduct caused her daughter to want to quit the team.

Gibson filed a public records request with the district on Oct. 26, 2017, seeking written correspondence, emails and reports pertaining to discipline for Magdaleno in the 2017-18 school year.

The district responded Nov. 3, 2017, saying an internal investigation was ongoing, and no documents would be released pending the investigation.

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Gibson followed up with another request April 5, the same day the Sheriff’s Office says it recommended the District Attorney’s Office charge Magdaleno criminally. This time, Gibson amended his request to also include communications from specific administrators related to the Magdaleno investigation.

The district responded by providing some documents, but largely declined again to provide complaints received about Magdaleno, again citing the ongoing investigation.

On May 26, Gibson wrote to the district to protest its continued refusal to disclose certain correspondence, disciplinary records and complaints.

The district, however, “continued to deny, delay, and stonewall,” the Tribune lawsuit states.

On May 30, Charles Fiorentino, assistant human resources director for the district, responded to Gibson saying the district’s investigation was still underway and again rejected Gibson’s request.

Meanwhile, as his June 30 separation agreement shows, Magdaleno was in talks at the time with the district about his resignation.

“The district did not make the settlement agreement public until on or about Aug. 31, 2018, when The Tribune made another request for it, but still did not respond to the October 2017 and April and May 2018 records requests,” the lawsuit states.

The district took no action on the outstanding records requests until The Tribune’s legal counsel sent a followup letter Aug. 24 demanding a positive response.

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In the meantime, following the District Attorney’s Office announcement that they were not pursuing charges against Magdaleno, celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred filed a lawsuit in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on behalf of a student athlete that alleged Magdaleno sexually abused the teen over the course of two years and school district officials did nothing to prevent it.

In addition to inappropriate touching and comments attributed to Magdaleno, the teen alleges he digitally penetrated her vagina and that she personally witnessed Magdelano commit similar assaults on three other students.

Magdaleno has filed a response in court generally denying the allegations. A hearing is scheduled for Dec. 20.

In the Aug. 24 letter, Olson wrote to Superintendent Raynee Daley that if records were not produced within 10 days, The Tribune would take further legal action.

The district responded Sept. 4, admitting that the newspaper sought records that were disclosable, but claimed several exemptions and stated that it needed to give Magdaleno at least 15 calendar days to challenge the disclosure.

In making his case for disclosure of Magdaleno’s records, Olson relies primarily on a 2004 state appellate case brought by the Bakersfield City School District, in which the appellate court ordered disclosure of records about the behavior of a school superintendent and the elected governing board of the district even though the superintendent had been largely exonerated of criminal charges.

The court ordered the records released because “the public had an interest in knowing about what appeared to be a ‘sweetheart deal’ between the board and the superintendent.”

“(Both) the case law and the serious nature of the allegations against Mr. Magdaleno strongly support disclosure here,” Olson’s Aug. 24 letter reads. “The public has a right to know about the complaints against Mr. Magdaleno and the extent to which he has been disciplined.”

The Tribune is seeking disclosure of all requested items, or that the court conduct a in-chambers review of the material in question. The newspaper requests that if the court does not order release of the records, it order the district to show cause why they should not be released.

The newspaper is also seeking recovery of its legal fees and any other costs incurred through the process.

On Friday, Editor Joe Tarica said the case was an example of The Tribune’s commitment to pursing transparency and accountability in local government.

“The Lucia Mar school district is a public agency that relies on the trust of the community it serves. That community has a right to know how the district is handling serious allegations like the ones in this case, and we hope the court agrees,” Tarica said.

A case management conference is scheduled for Oct. 30 in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.

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Matt Fountain: 781-7909, @mattfountain1