Westminster Loses Appeal on Latino Police Officers’ Discrimination Case

Westminster City Hall. JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC Contributing Photographer

The city of Westminster will be on the hook for a $3.3 million federal judgment, after the Ninth District Court of Appeals Wednesday denied the city’s appeal of a 2011 lawsuit in which three Latino police officers alleged discrimination and retaliation because of their race.

A federal jury awarded Westminster Police Department officers Jose Flores, Ryan Reyes and Brian Perez $3.3 million in 2014, finding the officers had been denied assignments and promotions that were given to less qualified officers and were discriminated or retaliated against by former police chiefs for filing complaints.

The Court of Appeals Wednesday upheld the majority of the trial court’s ruling, except for a $466,500 portion of the judgment against former police chief Mitch Waller, who was killed in a biking accident before the trial began. A lower court will decide whether Flores and Reyes can recover the damages from Waller’s estate.

“The City believes the decision is incorrect, that it appears that the case presents significant issues for further review, and that the City is evaluating its options for further review,” said Timothy Coates, an attorney representing the city on the appeal, in an email Wednesday.

Although the judgment was awarded in 2014, because of the pending appeal the city has not paid any of the money to the officers. Although it’s unclear how much the case will cost the city, the city could also be on the hook for $3.3 million in attorneys’ fees and other costs for the trial.

Attorney Michael Kibbe, who is representing the three officers in the appeal, said they will most likely demand reimbursement for attorneys’ fees for the appeal as well.

“At this point, they’ve paid nothing, they’ve fought at every opportunity, and it appears that they’re running out of options,” said Kibbe.

During a nine-day trial in 2011, Flores, Reyes and Perez argued that they were repeatedly denied special assignments such as SWAT or detective duties, and instead assigned “mall duty” at a substation at the Westminster Mall.

They claimed that after they filed administrative complaints, they were retaliated against with repeated and unwarranted disciplinary actions.

During the trial, the city argued that officers of all races “had to apply numerous times before being promoted to Sergeant” and presented evidence that at least seven Latino officers received special assignments between 2006 and 2013, according to the appeals court ruling.

Flores also claimed that he was called names by other officers, like “Dirty Sanchez,” a term referring to an obscene sex act, was referred to as an English learner and a “12500 Julio,” a reference to the state vehicle code for an unlicensed driver, according to the Orange County Register.

It was also noted during the trial that the Westminster Police Department had a “Whites Only” sign displayed for nearly two decades, and was removed in 1996. An attorney for the city later told Southern California Public Radio that the sign was removed before the three officers began working there.

The jury ultimately found that race was not a substantial motivating factor in the city’s refusal to select the officers or special assignments and promotions, but that two police chiefs – Andy Hall and Ron Coopman – did discriminate against the officers.

The jury also found that three of the chiefs – Waller, Hall and Kevin Baker – personally participated in retaliation against some of the officers.

It’s unclear how much the city will owe as a result of the Court of Appeals ruling.

City officials did not provide an estimate for how much the city has spent defending the lawsuit during the trial and during the appeal.

The jury ruled that the city itself was not responsible for the discrimination, and was to pay $1.2 million of the judgment for general damages. The remaining $2.1 million was left up to the four former police chiefs named in the lawsuit.

But the city council voted in 2015 to indemnify the chiefs for the costs, and so the city will pick up the entire $3.3 million tab.

Since the 2011 lawsuit, the city has faced four other lawsuits from city employees, including a 2013 lawsuit from another police officer, Matthew Edinger, who claimed he was retaliated against by department officials and passed up for promotions and assignments because he gave statements in 2010 during an internal investigation, and later in a court deposition, supporting a co-worker’s discrimination claim.

Perez, one of the three officers in the lawsuit, has recently filed two administrative claims alleging “a continuing pattern and practice of discrimination and a violation of his military rights of discrimination upon return from military service,” according to an email from Perez’s attorney Dennis Wagner to city officials.

According to that email, Perez also plans to file a tort claim, a precursor to a lawsuit.

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