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SOUTH PASADENA : Ex-Mayor Wins $7,500 in Punitive Damages After $1.2-Million Award

A former mayor of South Pasadena on Monday asked for--and received--minimal punitive damages against the three city officials he had sued.

“I don’t believe in vengeance,” said former Mayor Lee. D. Prentiss, who won a $1.2-million verdict against the city Friday for general and compensatory damages.

On Monday, the jury decided that ex-Mayor Evelyn Fierro must pay Prentiss $4,000 in punitive damages; Clarice Knapp, a Cultural Heritage commissioner and wife of Councilman Harry Knapp, $2,000, and Transportation Commissioner Joanne Nuckols, $1,500.

The jury agreed with Prentiss’ contention that the officials had conspired to revoke the building permit on his house to punish him for the conservative positions he took when he was a council member.

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Legal experts said Monday it was unusual for a plaintiff to ask a jury to limit punitive damages.

The defendants’ lawyer, David D. Lawrence, doubted that Prentiss’ call to keep the punitive damages low was an act of altruism.

“I think they recognize that (Friday’s) verdict is excessive and a large punitive damages award would just emphasize that,” said Lawrence, who plans to recommend that the City Council seek a new trial. The $1.2 million would be paid by the city, probably out of its insurance, but punitive damages are levied against defendants personally. Prentiss’ attorney, David King, on Monday asked the jury to limit the punitive damages to no more than $5,000 per defendant.

The legal battle began in September, 1990, when a council majority, including Fierro, voted to revoke a building permit that allowed Prentiss to build a 1,750-square-foot addition to his 86-year-old Craftsman-style house.

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By the time the permit was revoked, Prentiss had cut a new arch in a wall, removed concrete and bricks and poured foundations.

City officials said they had to revoke the permit because the house was on the state Historic Resource Inventory and the expansion plans needed environmental review.

However, the state Supreme Court last July let stand an appellate court ruling that the city had acted improperly.

Testimony during the Superior Court trial indicated that Nuckols and Clarice Knapp lobbied council members to revoke Prentiss’ building permit. The jury found that Fierro, Nuckols and Clarice Knapp acted with “malice or oppression” against Prentiss.

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