LAFAYETTE — A district judge denied former Lafayette Parish School Board member Mark Cockerham’s request for sanctions against his challenger in the upcoming election and against a former school administrator for filing a lawsuit claiming he moved out of district and needed to vacate his seat.
Judge Marilyn Castle dismissed the lawsuit during a hearing Wednesday because Cockerham has already resigned from the position.
Dawn Morris, his challenger, and Nancy Cech, who had served as a principal and a Central Office administrator, had previously offered to drop the suit, but Cockerham sought to pursue sanctions. He claimed they didn’t have right to file the lawsuit because state law outlines that such candidacy complaints should be made with the District Attorney’s Office.
Cech initially filed the suit on her own without an attorney and Morris later joined the suit. Cockerham said he believed that Morris, an attorney, wrote the initial petition, and accused her of filing it for improper political purposes. In addition to the lawsuit, Cech also filed a complaint with the DA’s Office.
“I don’t think anything happened in this case that’s sanctionable,” Castle said after hearing about an hour of testimony and arguments from attorneys. “It’s unfortunate that it’s become a political issue,” she said. “The ultimate result was he had to resign. It’s not like he suffered any damage because they approached it two ways instead of one.”
Cockerham’s attorney, Gary McGoffin, argued that because the lawsuit was filed, Cockerham bears the burden of the existence of the lawsuit as a public record when he fills out job applications or applies for credit and is asked if he’s ever been sued.
“All he has to say is, ‘yes and it was dismissed,’ ” Castle told McGoffin before making her ruling in court Wednesday.
Morris’ attorney, Bill Goode, told Castle that Morris did write the initial petition. Castle, however, didn’t find that the ghostwriting was an issue because Morris joined the suit about a week later.
McGoffin argued that Morris, as an attorney, had the professional duty to inform Cech of the potential ramifications she could face for filing a lawsuit without proper cause.
Castle asked McGoffin how the situation would be different if Goode had initially filed the petition.
McGoffin said Goode would be liable for sanctions, as well; however, “he did not have an improper political purpose.”
Later, Castle said, “It’s for Ms. Cech to complain if she (feels) Morris didn’t properly advise her.”
Before making her ruling, Castle heard testimony from Cockerham and Mike Hefner, a former School Board member who also is a demographer.
Cockerham testified that he spoke with Morris after the lawsuit was filed and she told him the lawsuit was something she would use in her campaign. Morris did not testify.
Hefner testified that Cockerham told him he viewed the lawsuit as a way to gain voters’ sympathy and to win the election and that Cockerham also said he wouldn’t step down from his current seat unless a judge forced him to do so.
Cockerham denied he made the comment about trying to use the lawsuit to gain votes, but confirmed he said he wouldn’t step down without judicial intervention.
Though she didn’t impose sanctions, Castle said she did agree with McGoffin that there was no private right for action to file the lawsuit. After the hearing, Goode said he disagrees with her on that issue.
McGoffin said it was important that Cockerham “got his day in court and we know the truth about what happened — that Dawn had a friend file the suit.”
After the lawsuit was filed in late August, Cockerham admitted to moving to a new residence, but said he was unaware he had moved out of District 7. He evidently consulted redistricting maps that don’t take effect until January. Based on maps still in effect until Dec. 31, his new address is in District 9. Based on the redistricting maps, Cockerham lives in District 7 and was allowed to run in the upcoming District 7 race.
On Monday, the School Board appointed Cockerham’s replacement, retired educator Melinda Mangham, who will serve out his term through the end of the year.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.