Santa Maria high school district issues defense to childhood sexual assault case
Lawyers representing the Santa Maria Joint Unified High School District have argued 41 defenses in response to a civil suit raised by a survivor of sexual assualt.
Three defenses stood out to attorney Brian L. Williams, who frequently represents survivors of assault and harassment: comparative fault (which states the victim was negligent), “no injury or damage” and “no severe emotional distress.”
Mr. Williams’ client, James McDaniel, is the last victim of many minors assaulted by former SMJUHSD teacher Michael Donald Cardoza — who was convicted of these crimes in 2008. Mr. Cardoza was released from prison in August.
Mr. McDaniel is seeking damages from Mr. Cardoza and the district for: negligence, negligent hiring and retention, negligent supervision, sexual battery and sexual harassment. He submitted an amended complaint mid-December, and the district issued a 12-page response Dec. 23.
The district’s attorneys at Tyson & Mendes argued that Mr. McDaniel was negligent at the time of the assault. (He was 16 when he was groomed and assaulted by his math teacher, Mr. Cardoza.)
“The injuries to the Plaintiff were sustained in that Plaintiff failed to exercise ordinary, and reasonable care or caution for Plaintiff’s own safety,” the defense writes.
Mr. Williams told the News-Press that this defense is rare. He has never encountered a school district utilize this defense tactic.
“In response to the lawsuit, the school district blames the victim. To me, it disuades survivors of sexual assault to come forward,” he said. “The school district needs to realize that survivors struggle to come forward for fear of being blamed.”
The complaint dates Mr. Cardoza’s history of grooming back to Golden West High School, in the Visalia Unified School District, and at St. Mary’s Church. He was removed involuntarily from seminary after three complaints of inappropriate conduct with minors.
SMJUHSD hired Mr. Cardoza two years after he was removed from seminary. He worked at Santa Maria High School before transferring to Pioneer Valley High School. Four instances of abuse at SMHS are outlined in the complaint.
When Mr. Cardoza was arrested for the assault of Mr. McDaniel, Mr. McDaniel was not contacted by any administrators to offer comfort or assistance. Mr. Cardoza’s employment was not terminated for more than two years.
Students were permitted to rally on PVHS’s campus during their “Panther Hour” class period in support of Mr. Cardoza. They carried signs in support of Mr. McDaniel’s attacker and alleged his innocence.
The district’s attorneys argue “no injury or damage” as a defense. “This answering Defendant denies Plaintiff suffered any injury or damage whatsoever, and further denies this answering Defendant is liable to Plaintiff for any injury or damage claimed or for any injury or damage whatsoever,” their response says.
The sexual abuse is a legal fact because Mr. Cardoza was convicted, Mr. Williams explained.
“This man was criminally convicted of assaulting him,” he said. “Who in their right mind would say he wasn’t injured?
“I have to explain these defenses to my client, and it’s a very hard thing to do. It re-victimizes my client all over again.”
The 37th defense “No Severe Emotional Distress” argues that severity is a condition for paying emotional distress damages.
To Mr. Williams, the severity is clear. “Childhood sexual abuse: It’s hard to imagine a crime more damaging,” he said.
Mr. Cardoza began grooming Mr. McDaniel as the teen’s mental health was ailing.
The number of defenses does not bother Mr. Williams, he said. He worries about the nature of some of the complaints promoting a “culture of silence.”
Other defenses distance the district from Mr. Cardoza’s actions and allege the plaintiff has not established proof a district employee knew about Mr. Cardoza’s behavior.
“The biggest aspect of this case for me is: How did he get hired in the first place”” Mr. Williams said. “Did anyone investigate why he left those ventures (VUSD, seminary) and what he did during that gap of time and why did he have that gap of time?”
The lawsuit leaves the possibility of finding other parties responsible by naming “Does 3-20” as plaintiffs. If discovery reveals damning evidence, Mr. McDaniel can seek damages from additional parties.
“We are aware of the lawsuit, though we have no comment at this time,’’ Kenny Klein, SMJUHSD public information officer, told the News-Press.