Fired National City Policeman Wins Suit
A fired National City police officer won a $300,000 award after a federal jury found he had been slandered by former Chief Terry Hart, who told a local newspaper the officer was fired for lying.
Samuel W. Rattray, who was fired in 1985, was awarded the judgment Friday, after a two-week trial in U.S. District Court. The jury found Hart and the National City Police Department liable for the damages.
However, the jury found that Rattray, who is black, was not a victim of racial discrimination when he was fired. He previously had worked as a sheriff’s deputy in the County Jail but resigned on Dec. 6, 1982, after he was accused of using excessive force.
The case itself was unusual because it featured two officers fired by National City. Hart was fired in 1988 by City Manager Tom McCabe for not being a “team player.” Along with his dismissal, Hart received an $80,000 cash settlement and a tax-free $33,500 annual disability pension for life from the city.
Rattray’s controversial firing occurred after a female civilian employee of the department accused him of sexual harassment. According to Peter Friesen, Rattray’s attorney, the woman told her husband that Rattray had advised her to leave him. The man, who is now divorced from the woman, complained to police officials that Rattray was flirting with his wife and encouraging her to leave him.
Friesen and other National City officers familiar with the case said this was not the first time the woman, who is still employed by the department, had accused a fellow officer of sexual harassment. Several officers told The Times that previously she had accused an officer, who is now in internal affairs, of trying to get a date with her.
“The officer asked her to lift weights with him. She told her husband he had asked her out, and the husband went down to the department to complain. Nothing ever happened to the other officer,” Friesen said.
“The woman completely misinterpreted (Rattray’s) intentions. He is a very friendly individual who, like many people, flirts innocently with the opposite sex,” Friesen added.
According to Friesen and other National City officers, the woman’s husband came to police headquarters and complained to now-Asst. Chief Wayne Fowler, who was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, about Rattray.
Police investigators strapped a recorder to the woman the following day and she “enticed (Rattray) into the same conversation,” Friesen said. About a week later, Hart and Fowler summoned Rattray and asked him if he had encouraged the woman to leave her husband.
“His answer was that he didn’t recall encouraging her to leave,” Friesen said. “And the tape recording supported his position.”
Nevertheless, Rattray was fired. In a subsequent interview with the National City Star News, Hart was quoted as saying there was “clear, convincing and strong evidence” that Rattray had lied about the incident.
“The jury looked at the whole (internal) investigation that Hart and Fowler conducted,” Friesen said. “They looked at Hart’s statement that he had clear and convincing evidence and found none. They found that Hart acted with malice and his statements were made with reckless disregard for the truth.”
Richard Terzian, a Los Angeles attorney who was hired by the city to represent the department, called the jury’s decision a “partial victory but a partial loss” for the city.
“The jury found on our favor in the racial discrimination claim, but found for him on the slander claim,” said Terzian, who added the city has not decided whether to appeal the decision.
Friesen said Rattray may appeal on the racial discrimination finding.
Rattray’s “record was satisfactory. One thing that distinguished him was that he was the lone black officer in the department. He was a token black, set within more rigid parameters as to his role. We believe the department fired him because he flirted with a white woman,” Friesen said.
Rattray, who now works in construction, was not available for comment. But, in a 1986 interview, he told The Times that his situation at the department began to worsen when his superiors learned that his wife is white.
Hart, who is now police chief in a small town in Oregon, could not be reached for comment.