Justice Watch: Appeal Seeks To Reinstate $155M Aventura Verdict

, Daily Business Review


Katherine Murphy
Katherine Murphy

Eight years ago, Katherine Murphy was an internationally renowned and award-winning educator, serving as the principal at the Aventura City of Excellence School.

All that ended when she was accused by City Manager Eric Soroka of taking bribes to allow students to skip the waiting list and get into the popular city-owned K-8 charter school.

Soroka fired Murphy in 2006 and told parents and community leaders she was a thief. The accusation sent her into a tailspin. Her former students would avoid her in public.

Eventually, Murphy's health failed and she nearly died after a portion of her bowel was removed. She ended up in a coma. Her firing capped years of alleged verbal abuse from Soroka, according to court documents and testimony in her defamation trial against Soroka, the school's registrar and Charter Schools USA Inc.

Now, the former educator's hopes for redemption lie with the Third District Court of Appeal. A three-judge panel has been asked to review Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Rosa Rodriguez's decision to discard a $155 million jury award to Murphy in November 2012.

Rodriguez ruled after a four-week trial that Soroka was immune from defamation claims. The Third DCA ruled on the immunity issue when the case was in front of another judge, but Rodriguez said that finding was not binding on her.

A federal judge also ruled Soroka was not immune when Murphy's case when in front of him. Rodriguez also refused to recuse herself at Murphy's request.

Her appellate brief summarized her accusations against Soroka, including that he used the Aventura police as "his own personal militia" to investigate schoolchildren and their families. It also claims he bought the silence or cooperation of school employees by giving them promotions and large raises, including $100,000 to Murphy's replacement.

'out of control'

"The facts that developed were astounding. There appears to be an effort to cover up the truth and create a different set of facts up to and during the course of the trial. This was a public official who was out of control," said Ben Kuehne, one of Murphy's attorneys. "We didn't know a lot of this stuff, such as his control over the police department."

Soroka's office referred questions to his Fort Lauderdale lawyer Michael Burke, a partner at Johnson, Anselmo, Murdoch Burke, Piper & Hochman. A response to Murphy's appellate brief is due Feb. 17.

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