Westminster Officials Ordered to Pay $570,000 : Courts: Punitive damages must be paid to firefighters out of pocket. Ruling follows earlier award of $1.9 million.
After awarding $1.9 million in compensatory damages to Westminster firefighters whose civil rights were violated, a federal jury Friday ordered several city officials--including the mayor--to pay $570,000 out of their own pockets as punishment for their role in firing or disciplining the employees.
Legal experts say the staggering sums awarded the firefighters may change the way government entities deal with their unions and may make cities more reluctant to terminate rank-and-file employees whom they suspect of wrongdoing.
“This case is unusual in that it hinges on retaliation for union activities, and those claims usually get settled before trial,” said Richard S. Whitmore, a Mountain View attorney whose firm represents 160 cities and counties in California. “If this is upheld on appeal, it could be a problem in that more and more cases like this could be brought against cities.”
Whitmore said he has never heard of a similar case in California producing such a high jury award.
The setback is the second in a week for Westminster officials. They will have to pay the latest award themselves unless they can get the Westminster City Council to let taxpayers foot the bill, which is the case with the $1.9 million in compensatory damages to cover firefighters’ lost wages and pain and suffering.
The city plans to appeal the judgment, which likely will delay payment for months.
The five firefighters had asked the jury for $305,000 to be divided equally among various city officials they believed responsible for punishing them, but the jury countered with $570,000 instead.
“This sends a resounding message to the people of Westminster that the officials leading the city ought not to be,” said Alan C. Davis, an attorney for the firefighters. “We’re ecstatic. The jury made a clear statement. They’ve said that the city has to be told they have to stop this conspiracy.”
Each of the four firefighters will get $50,000 from Mayor Charles V. Smith ($200,000); $37,500 from Finance Director Brian Mayhew ($150,000 total); $30,000 from former Fire Chief John T. DeMonaco Jr. ($120,000 total) and $5,000 from Councilman Tony Lam ($20,000 total.)
Former Assistant City Manager Don Anderson must pay $2,500 each ($10,000 total) and former Councilman Craig Schweisinger was instructed to pay $10,000 each ($40,000 total). Schweisinger was also ordered to pay a separate $30,000 slander claim to a fifth firefighter, whom he had compared to late Teamsters Union boss Jimmy Hoffa.
The federal civil rights case grew out of a nasty fight between members of the Westminster firefighters union and city officials over the high cost of overtime, which amounted to more than $900,000 in one year.
City officials launched an investigation into whether firefighters were falsifying time cards and claiming overtime for hours they did not work.
In return, the union blamed the city for the overtime costs and warned the city that council members were endangering the lives of all residents by refusing to hire more firefighters.
The battle escalated into a recall campaign against four council members. All four were retained in a special election last year, which the officials took as proof of their public support.
However, the awards handed down this week have cast a fresh pall over the city and opened old wounds, many say.
“It’s very disheartening to be held personally liable for making decisions in the best interest of the taxpayers we serve, and be faced with a huge personal loss because of it,” Smith said. “Those things make it very discouraging for good people to run for public office.”
Smith said that if Westminster were to pay all the $2.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages, it would wipe out all the savings it earned by joining the newly formed Orange County Fire Authority and pooling its resources.
Schweisinger, DeMonaco, Mayhew, Lam and Anderson did not return calls for comment.
Harold Potter, who defended the city in the lawsuit, said Westminster has excellent grounds for appeal.
The jury ruled, for instance, that the First Amendment rights of one of the firefighters had been violated but not his rights of equal protection, which means that rulings are in conflict. Further, Potter said, the jury determined that a former acting city manager who signed off on the disciplinary actions had not violated any law.
“If the last overseer of discipline had no liability in the entire case, then how could anyone else have liability?” Potter said. “These are some of the key issues.”
Potter called the punitive damages “outrageous” and said they should have been based on the net worth of each of the individuals ordered to pay damages.
“We heard comments from the jurors like, ‘We know government officials hide assets,’ ” Potter said.
“This was not so much a victory for unions as it was a real anti-government sentiment on the part of the jury,” Potter said. “It’s indicative of a general population which distrusts government.”
It remained unclear if the city would reimburse the officials who must pay punitive damages. City officials were studying the matter, but maintained confidence that the judgment would be overturned on appeal.
Meanwhile, firefighters were ecstatic Friday.
“I think when this was all going down, you felt helpless and hopeless because it was so much bigger than you,” said Dana Bowler, who was fired but reinstated by the city and now works for the Orange County Fire Authority. “You knew it was false, knew the things they were saying in the paper were false, but you couldn’t fight it. Now the jury has seen all facts and they ruled appropriately.”
Bowler has been awarded $43,500 in compensatory damages and $135,000 in punitive damages. His colleague at the Fire Authority, Joe Wilson, who was also fired as fire captain and then reinstated, will get $49,000 in compensatory damages and $135,000 in punitive damages, and also was pleased.
“Truth and honesty still have a meaning someplace,” he said. “Everyone has to be held accountable and they need to be held accountable to a higher level than ordinary citizens. We had the finest fire department and the City Council destroyed it purely for vindictive political reasons.”
Marcie Raphael, the wife of Hal Raphael, the former battalion chief who now works part-time as a longshoreman, called the awards a “a very gratifying victory for us. We’re very happy that the jury found so strongly that these people need to be punished. How wrong they were. We’re just glowing with the victory.”
Hal Raphael has been awarded $1.1 million in compensatory damages and $135,000 in punitive damages.
His wife said the money “doesn’t do a drop in the bucket to repair the damage that’s been done to our family, but it lifts our spirits. There are a number of things we’ve had to do economically to survive that can never be repaired.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Westminster Mayor Charles V. Smith will pay the largest share of a $540,000 punitive damage award granted four firefighters whose civil rights were violated. The officials and amounts to be paid:
Mayor Charles V. Smith
Finance Director Brian Mayhew
Former Fire Chief John T. DeMonaco Jr.
Councilman Tony Lam
Asst. City Manager Don Anderson
Former Councilman Craig Schweisinger*
* Amount includes $30,000 slander damages to a fifth firefighter.