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Legal Update on Cayla J. v. State of California

Julie Hamill


Julie Hamill
February 6, 2024

Legal Update on Cayla J. v. State of California

On February 1, Public Counsel announced settlement of Cayla J. v. State of California, Alameda County Superior Court Case No. RG20084386. The LA Times explains the settlement in further detail.


California’s pandemic policies harmed children, especially minority students in low-income areas. The settlement includes a promise by State government defendants to propose legislation reallocating resources toward helping students most negatively impacted by pandemic learning loss and $2.5 million in attorney’s fees to Morrison Foerster and Public Counsel.

Full Story 

Students from Oakland Unified School District and Los Angeles Unified School District brought this case in November 2020, alleging the State’s response to the pandemic violated the Equal Protection clause of the California Constitution and the California Education Code. The State of California, State Board of Education, State Department of Education, and State Superintendent of Instruction Tony Thurmond were named as defendants.

Plaintiffs asked the court to direct the State to (1) address disparities in remote education that disproportionately harmed low income and minority students (referred to as the “Digital Divide”), (2) provide mental health and behavioral support for students and teachers, (3) develop and implement a plan to address the learning loss during the pandemic.

Litigation dragged on for years, including a fascinating dustup between plaintiffs’ experts and the State that resulted in a legal threat from Tony Thurmond. Experts used publicly available data to produce scathing reports (see here and here) detailing the ways in which California policies harmed students.

Shortly after the filing of these reports, Thurmond threatened legal action against Plaintiffs’ expert, Stanford Professor Thomas Dee, citing a clause in an MOU between the State and an organization with which Dr. Dee was affiliated that purportedly bars researchers from using the State’s data in testimony against the State. More on that here.

Plaintiffs’ experts moved for a protective order, and the ACLU spoke out in defense of the experts. If such a clause were enforceable in research contracts, then no reports critical of the government could be published. Read more about that here. This story requires an entirely separate post and follow-up.

Getting back to the settlement… Trial was set for December 2023. Following extensive motion practice and settlement discussions, notice of settlement was filed January 24, 2024.

What is in the Settlement Agreement?

The settlement includes:

  1. Proposed Legislation: Defendants will propose legislation during the 2023-2024 term regarding grant allocation and administration, and learning recovery resources and assistance.
  2. Additional Acts by Defendants: Defendants will continue to publicly report achievement and absenteeism data by school and local education agency, and request that geographic leads develop new resources and trainings around the needs assessment/planning process and implementation of learning recovery strategies.

Who Gets the Two Billion Dollars?

While the media refers to this as a “two billion dollar settlement,” no party is actually receiving two billion dollars. The State has merely agreed to take the money from certain programs and redirect it to others. The settlement “is contingent on sufficient funding available to the most impacted schools and districts. If LEAs report that there are less than $2 billion in unencumbered funds statewide under the Block Grant as of July 1, 2024, Plaintiffs are permitted to re-open this litigation, pursuant to the process described in Paragraph 10.” (Parag. 11). The assumption here is that at least two billion dollars will be reallocated from the Learning Recovery Emergency Block Grant toward students most in need based on the framework proposed in the settlement agreement. There are a variety of triggers in the agreement that would allow Plaintiffs to reopen litigation.

Overall, this case highlights the dereliction of duty by Governor Newsom and Superintendent Tony Thurmond to provide children with adequate education. We all knew that school closures and distance learning harmed kids, and now we have sworn expert testimony to prove it. While the ultimate result is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, it is vindicating to those of us who witnessed the harm done to kids in California.

To read the full settlement click here. 


Julie Hamill is an attorney with California Policy Center. She is the founder of Alliance of Los Angeles County Parents and a Palos Verde Peninsula Unified School Board Trustee. 

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