The court of public opinion prevails in frequent flyer deaf student suit

The court of public opinion prevails in frequent flyer deaf student suit

June 26, 2012

Ken Herman, Commentary

The court of public opinion, having reached a verdict, will now come to order in the case of the mom who wanted the Rapid Rewards points from the plane tickets the Texas School for the Deaf bought for her daughter. The verdict against the mom was loud and clear, loud and clear enough for her lawyer to hear it and recommend dropping the federal lawsuit stemming from the battle.

I convened the court of public opinion Friday and sought reader input. Some of you took the responsibility pretty seriously. Some of you are kind of scary.

The verdict was pretty much unanimous and summed up in the subject line of one reader’s email to me: “Rapid Rewards nutcase lady.” Another reader said, “The person who filed the lawsuit sounds wacky, unreasonable and obdurate.”

Background: A woman identified in the litigation as T.H.C. has been in a prolonged battle with the school over the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards points accrued in her daughter’s name for tickets the school purchased for the daughter (and a chaperone) to go home to El Paso on weekends. It’s part of the school’s program to get students home to their families on weekends. State money pays for the plane tickets.

All the school requires in return is the use of frequent flier program points earned on those trips. The school saves about $30,000 a year by using the points to get free tickets for students and chaperones.

On Monday, attorney Karen Dalglish Seal told me she is going to recommend that her client T.H.C. drop her lawsuit filed against the school earlier this month. A state hearing officer previously OK’d the School for the Deaf’s frequent flier awards policy. The mom’s lawsuit sought damages from the school for “malicious civil prosecution” resulting from the school’s request for the hearing officer’s ruling.

Among other things, the lawsuit sought recovery for “emotional pain,” “inconvenience,” “injury to reputation” and “loss of enjoyment of life.”

“There is no real reason to go forward with it,” Seal told me Monday, citing, in part, emails she’s fielded from the public about the case.

“It’s already been tried by the court of public opinion by you and the newspaper, so I don’t know that we would have much of a chance because of that. People have already formulated their opinions and sent me emails.”

Seal also noted that her client’s daughter now is receiving the “free appropriate public education” to which she is legally entitled. The now 19-year-old, who had been transferred by her mom to El Paso public schools, now is back at the School for the Deaf. The family moved to Killeen, eliminating the need for and the controversy surrounding the plane tickets.

“Right now, she is in school and making progress, and her mother feels she is doing really well,” Seal said.

I’m sure the court of public opinion is happy to hear that. We wish the young lady well.

“Based upon the fact that it’s been kind of tried in the newspaper and the radio and by this time the federal court judges are going to know about it,” Seal said, “I don’t see (pursuing the lawsuit) as being in her best interest.”

Seal expects her client to agree to drop the suit, but that decision has not yet been made. She still wants a meeting with the school to discuss the policy. The School for the Deaf, insisting there have been discussions, sees nothing further to discuss. In fact, after I told school officials about Seal’s recommendation for dismissal of the lawsuit, the school moved quickly this week to file a response to the lawsuit. By doing so, the school cut off the other side’s ability to unilaterally get it dismissed. The school wants the plaintiff to agree to dismissal “with prejudice,” a move that would preclude any attempts to revive the matter. The school also wants the other side to agree to shut up about the school’s Rapid Rewards policy and the legal battle over it.

The school’s answer to the lawsuit says T.H.C. (identified in the latest filing as Tiffany H.) has acted “out of pure greed.”

“All along, we believed we were right,” Leonard Schwartz, the school’s lawyer, said of the other side’s new plan, “and this just confirms that position.”

He also thinks the other side’s reasons for dropping the suit might include the possibility that the mom could be ordered to pay the state’s legal fees.

Whatever the reason, I’m glad it seems the lawsuit will go away. Looks like the court of public opinion is a powerful thing. That kind of scares me.

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