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The U.S. Supreme Court has ended the city of Westminster’s four-year fight to overturn a federal court judgment in favor of three Latino police officers who sued the city for discrimination and were awarded $3.4 million plus attorney fees.
The nation’s highest court decided April 16 it would not review the case, rejecting a petition by Westminster to appeal the 2014 decision by a federal court jury that awarded the damages to Westminster Police Department officers Jose Flores, Ryan Reyes and Brian Perez.
The city – which passed a one cent sales tax increase in 2016 as it faced a possible bankruptcy — will owe at least $7 million, not counting its own attorney fees, to the police officers for the judgment and their legal fees.
That’s on top of more than $700,000 in legal fees to defend the city against lawsuits brought by other city employees in recent years, and another $692,000 in settlements paid to three of those employees.
The city spent another $70,379 in legal fees to fight Voice of OC over the disclosure of a legal claim by its former police chief, and paid another $120,000 to Voice of OC in attorney fees after the city lost the lawsuit and had to disclose the claim.
In total, the city has spent more than $10.5 million on litigation and settlements since 2011.
A federal jury in 2014 found the officers were 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 jury decision was largely upheld by the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal.
During a nine-day trial, Flores, Reyes and Perez argued 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.
The city argued during the trial, 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.
The city owes $3.3 million in attorneys fees for the three officers, according to City Manager Eddie Manfro. In an email, Manfro said the city has “reserved funds for this judgment in our Liability Fund” and has received another $4 million from insurance carriers, so the judgment will have “no impact to the City’s General Fund Reserves.”
Manfro didn’t respond to follow-up questions about how the city’s own legal expenses – at least $2 million — will be paid and how much the city has budgeted for legal expenses. The cost of additional attorney fees generated during the appeal process has not yet been determined.
“At every single opportunity the city had to cut its losses, they ensured this would be the most expensive case it could be,” said Joseph Pries, an attorney who represented the three police officers during the appeal.
Manfro defended the city’s decision to continue appealing the case.
“Due to the size of the judgment and award of attorney fees, as well as the significant legal issues raised by this outcome, including the fact that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision is contrary to eight other circuit appellate courts, the City felt it was necessary to exhaust all available avenues for appeal,” Manfro said in an emailed statement.
All the employee lawsuits filed in recent years have cited issues with discrimination and retaliation.
In 2013, police officer Matthew Edinger, sued the city claiming he was retaliated against by department officials, passed up for promotions and assignments because he gave statements supporting a co-worker’s discrimination claim. The city paid Edinger a $42,000 settlement.
In 2015, former City Clerk Robin Roberts sued the city claiming harassment and retaliation for reporting illegal acts, retaliation that she said was mainly by councilwoman Margie Rice. Rice allegedly “berated and belittled” Roberts in front other employees, management, and City Council members. The city settled the lawsuit in 2016 for $150,000.
In early 2016, former Police Chief Kevin Baker filed a claim against the city, an administrative precursor to filing a lawsuit.
Baker retired on May 1 after more than six months on medical leave, and later that month, the city executed a $100,000 settlement to resolve his threat of litigation and a $400,000 contract to settle a worker’s compensation claim.
Voice of OC sued the city to obtain Baker’s claim, finally receiving it in late 2017 after a year-long battle. Baker alleged widespread corruption by city officials and claimed he was retaliated against by Rice for reporting illegal activity.
Both Roberts and Baker said they have been in contact with FBI officials regarding corruption in Westminster.
Also in 2016, a Public Works employee named Kevin Beach filed a complaint, threatening to sue based on claims that he was subject to “unfair and unmeritorious comments by an elected official” and wrongfully placed on a twenty-hour suspension without pay, and wrongfully denied pay, according to his settlement. Although Beach didn’t file an official claim, his received a settlement that included a ten percent raise.
The city currently is facing two lawsuits by Perez, one of the police officers, and Tami Piscotty, a housing coordinator.
Perez is alleging continuing discrimination against him upon his return from military service. Piscotty says she was pushed out of her role as Assistant to the City Manager by the best friend of a former city manager’s son.
Contact Thy Vo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.