Federal Appeals Court Rebukes Texas RioGrande Lawyer For Filing Meritless Lawsuit

In September 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit dismissed a lawsuit, filed by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA), alleging that it was unconstitutional for a school district to not admit students who did not live with their legal guardians. The bizarre nature of this lawsuit was that, after an initial denial, the school district did in fact admit the student in question – which meant there was nothing to sue over in the first place.

In dismissing the lawsuit, the appeals court sternly admonished the TRLA lawyer for pursuing a “meritless appeal” which served “no conceivable interest of her client.” The case is yet another example of LSC-funded lawyers using taxpayer money to pursue lawsuits with an ideological agenda that has little or no relevance to the actual needs of their poor clients.

The case began on April 10, 2007 when Marta Zepeda sought to pre-enroll her five-year-old nephew Miguel Zepeda in the Boerne Independent School District’s kindergarten classes, due to begin on August 27. The school registrar, though, informed Marta that Miguel could not be enrolled because she was not his legal guardian. The district’s policy was to only admit students whose legal guardians resided in the district. Miguel’s mother lived in another jurisdiction. Later that day, Marta returned with a notarized document from Miguel’s mother but the registrar said that would not suffice.

It was at this point that Marta contacted TRLA, a legal aid group that receives federal funding from the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). A TRLA attorney called Craig Radtke, the District’s Director of Legal Affairs, to tell him that through the power of attorney the mother could establish Miguel’s residence in the Boerne school district. Radtke responded a week later that this was not a basis for admission. About two weeks later, Radtke spoke with TRLA attorney Aida Zaragoza, who would handle Miguel’s case. Radtke discussed other statutory means by which Marta could establish Miguel’s residency, “but Zaragoza found them untenable.” Radtke concluded the conversation by telling Zaragoza that “he would consider the matter further,” and sent an email to the district superintendent John Kelly, on vacation at the time, informing him of Miguel’s situation.

On July 11, 2007, an outside counsel for the district sent a setter to Zaragoza reiterating Radtke’s arguments against admission. But the letter also stated that the final decision rests with the board and the district would be happy to hear other legal arguments.

On July 19, 2007, TRLA filed a lawsuit in a federal district court alleging that the Boerne district’s policies violated the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment by “establishing a classification that deprives education to a discrete class of children who do not reside with their parents, legal guardians, or other persons having legal custody.”

However, Superintendent Kelly returned from vacation, reviewed the facts of Miguel’s case, and determined that the Texas Education Code granted the district the discretion to admit students who live in the district but not with their legal guardians. On July 30, 2007, Kelly had counsel send a letter to Marta informing her that Miguel would be admitted. The letter also asked TRLA to drop its lawsuit. TRLA refused.

TRLA argued that its lawsuit was still viable “because the district employed unlawful admissions policies on the day” the suit was filed. Furthermore, the district might exercise its discretion in the future to deny admission to Miguel or some other similarly situated student. TRLA persisted with the lawsuit even though the district stated it would not deny admission to Miguel as long as he lived with his aunt in the district.

A federal district court dismissed TRLA’s claims, noting that Miguel had not suffered an “actual or imminent injury” because the district did not deny him admission. TRLA then appealed the decision to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The court dismissed the lawsuit for the same reason: Miguel was not denied admission so he never suffered an injury justifying a lawsuit. The court observed that “[w]hen Superintendent Kelly…returned from vacation, he granted Marta the primary relief sought by this lawsuit, thereby mooting a purported controversy that was never ripe in the first place.”

The court concluded its decision by scolding TRLA attorney Zaragoza:

“[O]nce Miguel was admitted and the District provided assurances of his continued admission in open court, Marta’s counsel, Zaragoza, had an obligation to dismiss voluntarily this lawsuit…Zaragoza’s refusal to drop this lawsuit despite Miguel’s admission, and her decision to pursue this meritless appeal served no conceivable interest of her client. Like all lawyers, Zaragoza has an ethical obligation to pursue only legitimate claims, and can be sanctioned for filing frivolous appeals. Further, an attorney can be sanctioned when she ‘so multiplies the proceedings in any case unreasonably and vexatiously.’ After oral arguments in this case, the [school district] moved for sanctions against Marta’s attorneys. Although we decline to impose sanctions at this time, we warn Zaragoza that she may not be given the benefit of the doubt in the future.”