Riley’s Farm v CUSD lawsuit heads back to Ninth Circuit

Claremont Unified School District Superintendent Jim Elsasser. Courier photo/Steven Felschundneff

by Steven Felschundneff |

A five-year legal fight between the Claremont Unified School District and the owner of a farm that hosts American history themed field trips has yet to be settled even after a judge ruled last year that the district’s policies do not constitute an “ongoing violation of federal law.”

“On May 18, 2023, the District Court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants,” Superintendent Jim Elsasser, who is a named defendant, wrote in an email last week. “Plaintiffs have again appealed from the District Court’s judgment, and that appeal is now pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.”

James Riley sued the school district in 2018 after two CUSD elementary school classes canceled trips to Riley’s Farmin Oak Glen following negative publicity over some of Riley’s personal social media posts, which were deemed “bigoted,” “homophobic,” and “racist.”

“Some CUSD parents objected to the Riley’s Farm field trip and requested that their children be excused from attending, according to CUSD’s counsel. In response, other elementary schools within the district opted to not continue with field trips to the farm,” the Courier reported in December 2018.

In his suit, Riley claims the trips were canceled in retaliation over his political views, a violation of his First Amendment right to freedom of expression. He sued Elsasser, the Board of Education and two school principals, asking for $11 million for lost revenue and defamation.

He maintains the district has a blanket policy against students visiting his farm, citing a September 2018 email from Assistant Superintendent Julie Olesniewicz to Claremont’s elementary school principals “asking that no CUSD school attend Riley’s Farm field trips,” according to court documents.

Riley claims that further evidence of the ban came in October 2021 when a Mountain View Elementary School teacher attempted to book a field trip to the farm only to rescind the request the following day saying it was no allowed under “district policy.”

U.S. District Court Judge Jesus G Bernal’s decision last May found that Riley’s Farm and Riley failed to show that CUSD maintains an ongoing policy barring district teachers from scheduling field trips to his business.

To support this, the judge cites a resolution approved by the CUSD Board of Education on November 17, 2022 stating, “the Board hereby reaffirms its prior assertions that the District has no policy barring or discouraging District personnel from organizing field trips to Riley’s Farm.” Also, in August 2022 the board approved a list of field trip vendors including Riley’s Farm.

“With these ‘formal legislative acts,’ the Board resolved any ambiguity as to the remaining effect — none — of Assistant Superintendent Olesniewicz’s 2018 email ‘asking that no CUSD school attend Riley’s Farm field trips,’” Bernal wrote in his decision. “Further, Superintendent Elsasser has instructed CUSD principals that the District does not permit them to consider the political beliefs or speech of persons affiliated with a proposed field trip vendor in determining whether to approve a field trip.”

According to Bernal, plaintiffs can establish municipal liability in three ways: by showing that an employee acted in accordance with a long-standing practice; that the employee has final policy making authority; or that a person with final say authorized a subordinate’s action.

But the judge maintains Riley presented no evidence that any CUSD employee violated his rights “pursuant to a formal policy or longstanding practice or custom” at the district. Also missing was evidence that the person who committed the constitutional tort was an official with final policymaking authority.

“Superintendent Elsasser attests that in September 2018, he ‘did not prohibit, and would not have prohibited, any Claremont Unified School District school site from attending a field trip to Riley’s Farm, at any time, for any reason,’” according to Bernal’s decision. “He currently ‘do[es] not have any formal or informal policy barring or discouraging field trips to Riley’s Farm.’”

The judge acknowledges Riley’s claim that the district cannot avoid liability simply by ceasing an established practice only to reinstate that policy once the case is settled. However, Bernal repeats his previous assertion that the plaintiff did not present evidence that the blanket ban ever existed.

The lawsuit was initially dismissed by Bernal in July 2020, but Riley’s attorney, Thomas J. Eastmond, appealed to the Ninth Circuit. In March 2022 the three judge panel ruled that individual school defendants could not be held financially liable to Riley because of qualified immunity but also established that “there was a genuine issue of material fact on the issue of whether the Riley plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights had been violated.”

In April 2022 the Courier reported Riley’s legal fees associated with the case were in excess of $1 million. He has established a blog, in which he chronicles the suit’s ongoing saga and solicits donations to help with his legal fight.

Alliance of Schools for Cooperative Insurance Programs, a public entity risk pool to which CUSD belongs, has thus far paid the entirety of the district’s legal bills associated with the lawsuit. “There have not been any expenditures from district funds related to this case,” Elsasser said.


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