Judge Throws Out Civil Rights Lawsuit by 3 Ex-Policemen
Accusing the plaintiffs of “a serious abuse of the judicial process,” a federal judge on Tuesday threw out a $3-million lawsuit in which three former Santa Ana police officers claimed to have been forced out of the Police Department by racial and ethnic attitudes that violated their civil rights.
In ending the Los Angeles trial before the city and 16 officers presented their defense, U.S. District Judge David V. Kenyon found that “reasonable persons could reach” only one conclusion--a verdict against the plaintiffs.
“Further, the court finds that plaintiffs’ pursuit of this case has by and large constituted a serious abuse of the judicial process,” Kenyon wrote in a brief court order, which granted a defense motion to direct the jury to issue a verdict against the former officers.
“We are just delighted, absolutely delighted,” said Deputy Santa Ana City Atty. Charles Matheis, attorney for both the city and Police Chief Raymond C. Davis.
“The lawsuit was just an example of somebody thinking they could sue everybody in sight, and I don’t think it was appropriate,” said Gregory G. Petersen, attorney for five sergeants named as defendants in the suit.
The plaintiffs’ side was stunned by a total defense verdict.
“From listening to the order read over the telephone, it sounds like we were sitting in different courtrooms,” said William A. Snyder of Newport Beach, one of two attorneys for former officers Jesse J. Sanchez, Victor Torres and Robert Caro.
He said he believed enough evidence of racial and ethnic slurs and jokes was presented to allow the case to go to a jury. He claimed that a pattern of such slurs is enough to show discrimination, under prior federal appellate court decisions.
“We didn’t expect this ruling, especially since we had no formal oral argument on the issue,” Snyder said.
A disappointed Sanchez, who now lives in Mecca in the Coachella Valley, characterized Kenyon’s ruling as “just another obstacle in the system we’re up against.” He claimed that the judge favored the city and its witnesses throughout the 37 days of plaintiffs’ testimony stretching back to Feb. 15.
Sanchez also blamed Kenyon’s insistence on presiding over two complex trials at the same time for robbing the judge of time needed to consider the case properly.
Kenyon was juggling the Sanchez case with the trial of alleged Soviet spies Nikolai and Svetlana Ogorodnikov, alternating days or hearing one case in the morning and the other in the afternoon.
“Because of the dual responsibility he took, I honestly believe it became too much of a burden, and he probably believed the spy case was more important in his life as a judge,” Sanchez said. “He was just not interested in our case. We became secondary.”
Snyder and Sanchez said the plaintiffs will appeal Kenyon’s ruling.
Kenyon’s ruling, with its finding of a “serious abuse” of process, invites the defense to seek reimbursement of court costs and attorney fees, said City Atty. Edward J. Cooper. Fees and costs for two outside lawyers to represent 15 officers other than Davis reached $465,871 last month and will probably exceed $500,000 when the final bills are paid, he said.
Matheis, the deputy city attorney, said the plaintiffs had turned down pretrial settlement offers, including one for $300,000, and would not budge from a $2.4-million settlement demand.
Sanchez, Torres and Caro joined the Santa Ana force as a result of a minority recruiting effort in 1975 and 1976. The recruiting effort was in response to a federal job discrimination suit, which ended in a 1976 ruling that found the city had systematically discriminated against Latinos. Latinos constituted about 26% of the city’s population but only about 9% of the police force at the time.
The three officers formed the local branch of the Latino Peace Officers Assn., which they claimed Davis refused to recognize until after they had left the organization and the force.
Ethnic Slurs Alleged
The former officers contended that racial and ethnic slurs and jokes were so pervasive that they constituted a discriminatory policy and violated their civil rights. They charged that their complaints simply led to punitive action against them in the form of lower evaluations, reprimands and selective enforcement of departmental rules.
Sanchez and Torres said they were forced to resign; Caro claimed he was wrongly fired.
The city, denying any discriminatory policy, said Caro was properly fired for filing a false report about another officer using excessive force to arrest a Latino, that Torres left voluntarily to help his ailing parents with their business, and that Sanchez resigned because Davis refused to reinstate merit pay he had taken away after a poor performance rating.
Davis testified that racial or ethnic slurs or jokes are “not tolerated” and that supervising officers have a duty to discipline violators.
“I’ve broken an Anglo sergeant to patrol officer for using racial slurs,” he told the jury.
Other Latino officers also testified that they did not see a pattern of racial or ethnic discrimination. Former Cpl. Michael Candelaria testified he even used the term “wetback” to refer to members of his own ethnic background and that he did not consider it offensive.
Kenyon’s ruling leaves one minor issue open. In a pretrial order, he had agreed with Sanchez that the former officer had been denied due process in the appeal of his loss of merit pay. But the judge indicated in his order that he might reconsider the issue. Matheis said testimony showed that Sanchez failed to take the appropriate action to get his merit pay back.