Jury doesn’t award multimillion-dollar judgment in geo bee case
A federal jury on Friday declined to award a multimillion-dollar judgment to a family accused by their Oak Brook school district of trying to cheat in a geography bee in 2016, ruling in favor of the school board on most counts.
Barring an appeal, the verdict puts to bed years of costly litigation after an Oak Brook family accused a western suburban school district of trashing their reputation with accusations of cheating in a preliminary round of a national geography bee.
The jury heard closing arguments in the lawsuit after five days of testimony over whether Butler School District 53 acted appropriately when it accused Komal Julka of fraudulently purchasing answers to a geography bee in which her two sons, then 9 and 11 years old, planned to compete in January 2016.
Komal Julka, her husband, Dr. Rahul Julka, a DuPage County surgeon, and their sons, now 13 and 15, asked the jury to award them nearly $13 million. They asked for an award of $5 million for each of the boys, $1.9 million for Rahul Julka and $1 million for Komal Julka, arguing that they thought they were purchasing study materials for the geography bee.
“How much is your reputation in the community worth?” Dan Herbert, the Julka family’s attorney, asked the jury. “A lot more than the millions we are asking for.”
The school district, though, has maintained that
Komal Julka knowingly registered as a “fraudulent” home school provider to purchase the geography bee questions from the company that administered the bee. “Any emotional distress (the boys) sustained was because of what the mother did,” the district’s attorney, Darcy Proctor, said in closing arguments.
The weeklong trial was held before U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in the Loop.
Kennelly previously dismissed some counts of the lawsuit, but allowed two to go forward: that the school district intentionally caused the family emotional distress and that the school conducted an improper investigation and retaliated against the older boy when the family filed a grievance against the school by inserting negative records into his file.
The jury found for the school board and its employees and against each Julka family member in all cases except one, where it rendered a verdict in favor of Dr. Rahul Julka. Still, it awarded no compensatory damages.
The Tribune was not able to reach Komal Julka or her attorney for comment Friday evening. School district officials did not respond to a request for comment on the verdict.
The Julka family has said they obtained the test material unintentionally and that the school’s process of issuing punishment was secretive and unfair when it barred the boys from participating in future contests and added a note to their school records. Their attorneys argued that the boys will be “branded as cheaters” for the rest of their lives.
“This is going to stay with them for the rest of their lives,” said Elizabeth Fleming, one of their attorneys.
In the federal suit, the Julka family says the boys’ uncle, who was helping them study, went to the geography bee’s website and purchased what the family thought were study materials to prepare for the contest. The uncle purchased the material with the mother’s credit card, the suit says. He gave his home address and the National Geographic Society did a background check.
But attorneys for the school district said Komal Julka knew she had purchased what she believed to be the actual geography bee answers.
Proctor said Komal Julka offered to another mother to trade the geography materials for answers to another math competition. Proctor said Julka told that woman she had the “actual questions.”
However, the woman did not have answers to the math competition and was horrified after the conversation with Komal Julka, the school district has said.
That woman told Komal Julka to report the alleged cheating, Proctor said.
Komal Julka reported the incident to the school, and she and her husband withdrew the boys from the competition.
“Do not buy it,” Proctor told the jury. “It is because of Mrs. Julka’s misconduct that we are here today.”