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

, Daily Business Review

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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.

"Mr. Soroka did not violate any of Dr. Murphy's rights under either federal or Florida law," Burke said. "We feel Judge Rodriguez correctly applied Florida law in directing a verdict in his favor because all of his actions that he took visa vis Dr. Murphy were within the scope of his function as city manager of Aventura."

The school is funded with tax dollars and operated by the city and Charter Schools USA Inc.

Murphy sued the school and Soroka for defamation and infliction of emotional distress in 2009. The jury found Soroka liable for $500,000 in punitive damages. There were no damages against Charter Schools USA. The vast amount of award was for lost pay, medical expenses, pain and suffering.

Salary and benefits for the city manager's office, which includes Soroka, a code enforcement officer, secretary and receptionist, totals $645,604, according to the latest city budget. The Aventura City Council passed a resolution to pay for Soroka's punitive damages if need be.

Attorneys Richard J. Burton, Daniel J. Poterek and Marc A. Burton of the Burton Firm in Aventura worked so closely with Murphy on the trial and appeal that they hired her as the firm's office manager.

Poterek said he notified three Aventura police officers on Sept. 19, 2012, that he would take their depositions. His car window was smashed at the Aventura Mall that evening, and his case files and laptop were stolen. When he arrived home in Coral Gables that night, three Aventura police cars drove by as he got out of his vehicle, Poterek said.

"It was shocking to say the least," he said. "It's over 20 miles out of the way and definitely outside their city limits."

A call to the Aventura police department for comment was not returned by deadline.

Though Murphy is grateful to be working with the Burton Firm, she pines for her lost career. "The devastation to me is more than knowing that I won and the verdict was taken away. It's not being able to participate in my chosen field where my hopes, dreams and ambitions lie," she said.

Murphy claimed in her defamation lawsuit that her dismissal was retribution for her questioning Soroka on finances and policy.

Public Insults

Trial testimony supported her claims that Soroka routinely used sexual innuendo and swore at Murphy in public settings, calling her a "whore" and "idiot" in front of other school employees and parents.

A psychiatrist testified at trial that Murphy suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The trial featured testimony describing tantrums by Soroka and how he ran Aventura like a fiefdom. Until two years ago, a mural in the charter school's main hallway depicted Soroka and his wife, Teresa, who serves as the city clerk, on a bicycle built for two.

An amicus brief supporting Murphy's appeal was filed by the National Employment Lawyers Association's Florida chapter and the Florida Justice Association, previously the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers, a plaintiffs bar group.

"A public official who exercises governmental powers outside the scope of legitimate authority forfeits the protection of sovereign immunity and is individually and personally liable for damages just as though he were a private citizen," states a brief by Tallahassee attorney Richard E. Johnson and Miami lawyer Andrew Paul Kawel.

Murphy's attorneys insist Soroka's immunity argument was undermined by actions clearly outside the scope of his role as a city official.

Murphy's appellate brief reiterates testimony on how Soroka forced Murphy to hand over confidential student information to his wife to find out whether "these students had been allowed into the school."

The appellate brief also said Soroka sent armed police officers to Murphy's Palm Beach County home twice to deliver documents of her "termination package."

"Soroka falsely testified that he used police as couriers 'all the time' but could not identify a single example," Murphy's brief states. She said the officers told her she would be arrested if she set foot in Aventura.

Burton said allowing the verdict's dismissal to stand would be a travesty, not just for Murphy.

"There seems to be little in this record to support the judge's determination," Kuehne said. "Dr. Murphy, in an affidavit to the court, believed the judge was making determinations less on the merits of the case and more on her perceptions of it."

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