Anaheim Pays Former City Attorney $1.45 Million to Settle Discrimination Suit

The city of Anaheim has agreed to pay $1.45 million to former City Attorney Cristina Talley to settle a 2014 lawsuit in which she claimed she was forced to resign her post after facing years of age, gender and race-based discrimination.

Talley, who was 56 years old at the time of her resignation, alleged, among other things, that she was paid substantially less as the city’s top lawyer than her male predecessor; and members of the City Council majority implied she could not, as a Latina, give them objective legal advice on issues involving the Latino community.

City officials said in a statement that they settled the case to avoid further legal costs – the suit has so far cost taxpayers $800,000 — but they continue to dispute Talley’s claims and consider them “without merit.”

“We are pleased to bring this matter to a close and spare our city additional legal costs,” said city spokesman Mike Lyster. “As confident as we are in our position, the reality of our legal system is that it is more cost effective to settle than to seek our day in court.”

The parties announced the settlement at a hearing Tuesday, ahead of a federal jury trial scheduled for October 25 where current and former council members and city employees could have been called as witnesses.

Under the terms of the settlement, Talley would receive $750,000 in exchange for promising to dismiss the case and drop any future legal claims against the city. Her attorneys of the firm Borton Petrini LLC would receive $700,000, according to Lyster.

At the request of the City Council, Talley submitted her resignation from the city of Anaheim on Jan. 31, 2013, and retired from the city effective May 1, 2013.

In addition to her claims of discrimination, the lawsuit Talley filed in Oct. 2014 claims the city deprived her of due process before terminating her, and failed to investigate her claims of harassment and retaliation.

Talley was hired by the city as a Senior Assistant City Attorney in 1996 and worked her way up to become city’s top attorney in 2008. She pointed to the $225,000 salary of her predecessor, Jack White, compared to the $208,000 she was offered, as evidence of her claim of gender discrimination.

Talley was replaced by a 40-year-old man with less experience, former City Attorney Michael Houston, who started with a higher salary that her final salary, according to court records.

Kristin Pelletier, the former senior assistant city attorney, is serving as acting city attorney while the city looks for a permanent appointee.

Talley claimed in her suit that members of the council majority – councilwomen Kris Murray and Gail Eastman, and Councilman Harry Sidhu — attempted to entangle her in political disputes and challenged her legal opinions despite back-up from outside legal counsel. She said those council members also accused her of advocating for and favoring individual council members – mainly, Mayor Tom Tait.

The city faced a number of controversial decisions in 2012, including $158 million in proposed subsidies for luxury hotel projects at the GardenWalk outdoor mall, a subsequent lawsuit challenging the subsidies, and a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit brought against the city by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU).

The ACLU lawsuit alleged the city’s at-large elections system fails to represent Latino residents because although the city is 53 percent Latino, the City Council is all white.

Among other specific claims in Talley’s lawsuit was a performance evaluation conducted by council members in closed session in which Murray, Eastman and Sidhu gave her a “needs improvement” but failed to give specific feedback or offer ways she could improve. Tait and then-Councilwoman Lorri Galloway, meanwhile, said she “exceeds expectations.”

In December of 2012, shortly after the new city council was sworn in (Councilman Jordan Brandman and Councilwoman Lucille Kring replaced Sidhu and Galloway) Brandman asked that performance reviews be agendized for a January 2013 closed session.

A performance review of Talley was scheduled for a January 29 closed session. This review was scheduled less than six months after a previous review, and it was only the second she received since being appointed to the top attorney position, according to court documents.

It was then that council members Brandman, Murray, Kring and Eastman asked for Talley’s resignation by Jan. 31, with Tait as the only dissenting vote.

The city has maintained that Talley never discussed or complained about discrimination before she was asked to resign, and did not note those concerns in her resignation letter.

“Talley did not notify the City of any discrimination or harassment until more than a year after she resigned,” the city argued in a court document.

City officials also pointed to an independent investigation commissioned by the city, which found no wrongdoing on the city’s part.

Although conversations about Talley’s performance occurred in closed session meetings, which are exempt from public review, portions of depositions included in the case reveal the argument made against Talley.

The city pushed throughout the case to keep as much information from the public record as possible, claiming attorney-client privilege.

In an interview with Debra Reilly, the investigator, Murray said Talley’s failure to notify her, Eastman and Sidhu of her work often left them feeling blindsided at contentious council meetings.

They often felt Talley was ‘working overtime’ assisting Tait and Galloway on issues, Murray said, including a potential ballot initiative regarding district elections during a time when the city was facing related litigation from the ACLU.

“I think the fact that Tom and Lorri wanted to go overboard and saying she exceeded [expectations] just speaks to the – she was working very closely and basically accommodating every one of their wishes,” Murray said. “And you have three members who felt that they were being left in the cold when it came to getting that information.”

Murray said council members did not know Talley is Latina until Tait mentioned it in closed session after they asked Talley to resign. Tait, meanwhile, told Talley’s attorney Edward Morales in a deposition that Talley’s ethnicity was common knowledge.

“Is it so insidious to suggest that something racial might be going on when they’re claiming that Cristina Talley is – a Latina is working on behalf of the mayor’s agenda which is aligned with the Latino community” Morales asked Tait in the deposition.

Summarizing why he felt Talley’s termination was unjust, Tait said it seemed “like she wouldn’t give them the answers they wanted to hear.”

“I felt she was being punished essentially for being my friend, or something to that effect,” Tait said in the deposition.

Clarification: A previous version of this article did not clearly identify the Anaheim City Council members who voted to ask for Cristina Talley’s resignation in 2013.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.