Judge says lawsuit against police union may proceed in Orange County

Judge says lawsuit against police union may proceed in Orange County
Costa Mesa Mayor Jim Righeimer can proceed with his lawsuit against the city's police union, which he says harassed him. (Don Leach/Daily Pilot)

An Orange County Superior Court judge has cleared the way for evidence-gathering in a lawsuit filed by two Costa Mesa councilmen who allege members of their city's police union harassed and intimidated them.

That means a past president of the Costa Mesa Police Assn. and partners from its former law firm may soon have to submit to depositions, the Daily Pilot reported.


Last year, Mayor Jim Righeimer, his wife, Lene, and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger sued the police union, its former law firm and a private investigator, alleging that the three conspired against them for political gain during the 2012 general election season.

The police union, private investigator Chris Lanzillo and Upland-based law firm Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir were all named in the civil suit filed in August.

The suit accuses Lanzillo of tailing Righeimer and using a GPS tracker on Mensinger's truck on behalf of the law firm and police union. In August 2012, that GPS device led Lanzillo to a bar from which he tailed Righeimer and falsely reported him to police as a drunk driver, according to the lawsuit.

Until this week, most litigation and any discovery in the case had been on hold while Judge Gail A. Andler considered two motions that could have killed the lawsuit.

But Thursday, Andler ruled that the bulk of the lawsuit could move forward. She also signed a decision striking down a 1st Amendment-based defense from the police association. The defense, known as an anti-SLAPP motion, argued that the councilmen were suing in an attempt to stifle protected political speech.

The motion needed to be addressed before evidence-gathering could begin.

"The case was frozen in time," said Vince Finaldi, a lawyer for Righeimer and Mensinger.

Finaldi received Andler's ruling Tuesday and said he was eager to start taking depositions from the law firm's partners, Dieter Dammeier and Saku Ethir, and Jason Chamness, who was president of the police association during the time it employed the law firm.

The police association has repeatedly said it had no prior knowledge of any alleged plans to tail or bully the councilmen.

"The CMPA will continue to defend itself against plaintiffs' meritless and politically motivated claims," said Sy Everett, the association's lawyer.

The police association fired Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir soon after the 911 call reporting a possible drunk driver. Everett has also contended a degree of separation between the police union and Lanzillo. Because Lanzillo was allegedly a contractor for Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, the union argues that it cannot be held liable for any of the accusations against him.

"To hold a client responsible for the alleged acts of a law firm and a twice-removed independent contractor flies in the face of established law and common sense," Everett said Tuesday.

The association's lawyers are considering what their strategy will be during discovery. They also have the option to appeal Andler's rulings on the two motions.

Lackie, Dammeier McGill & Ethir and Lanzillo's lawyers are also considering what to do next.


"We're still studying the decision and weighing our options going forward," said Jerry Abeles, an attorney for the two defendants.

Dobruck writes for Times Community News.