Nearly $1.2 Million Given to Prosecutor in Libel Suit
A jury has awarded more than $1 million in damages to a Santa Clara County prosecutor who was suspended just before an election in which he ran against the then-district attorney’s choice of successor.
The prosecutor, Julius Finkelstein, was suspended after being accused of leaking a confidential memo to a newspaper about a past reprimand of his opponent.
A six-member jury found Thursday that the accusation had been false and had damaged Finkelstein. The county and former Dist. Atty. Louis Bergna were ordered to pay a total of nearly $1.2 million.
Before the trial, Chief U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson had ruled that Bergna had violated Finkelstein’s rights by failing to give him notice or a hearing before the suspension.
“The verdict of the jury vindicated Julius . . . in every possible way,” said Finkelstein’s lawyer, Alan Exelrod, who had asked for $4.4 million in damages.
Bergna declined comment on the verdict. His lawyer, Craig M. Brown, called all of Finkelstein’s damage claims “unwarranted and overblown.”
Finkelstein ran for district attorney in November, 1982, against Leo Himmelsbach, who won. The retiring Bergna wanted Himmelsbach to succeed him.
Bergna suspended Finkelstein without pay for 30 days that October, accusing him of leaking a confidential memo to the San Jose Mercury News about a reprimand of Himmelsbach.
Finkelstein admitted that he and another deputy district attorney had looked at personnel documents one night after work, but denied leaking the memo.
Bergna’s lawyer said the district attorney had good reason to suspect Finkelstein. Testimony at the five-week trial did not establish who had disclosed the document.
The jury awarded Finkelstein $500,000 for lost earnings, based on his claim that the harm to his reputation prevented him from getting a better-paying job with a private law firm. Finkelstein is still a deputy.
The jury also awarded $125,000 for loss of reputation, $25,000 for emotional distress caused by the suspension, and $25,000 for emotional distress caused by the lack of notice and a hearing.
In addition, the jury awarded $500,000 in punitive damages against Bergna, whose net worth was estimated during the trial at $2.6 million.
Ann Ravel, an assistant county counsel, called the verdict “shocking.” She said she would ask Henderson to reduce the damages, apart from any other challenges to the verdict.