It began with a Los Angeles public defender's "wounded pride." A sheriff's deputy had handcuffed her and dragged her through a courthouse. It ballooned into a federal case that has been estimated to cost taxpayers $1 million.
In a ruling written by Judge Alex Kozinski, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided Friday that a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy may be held liable for wrongfully arresting Deputy Public Defender Florentina Demuth after she failed to respond to a judge's page to come to court.
At the same time, the court chastised all those involved, including Los Angeles judges and the public defender, for allowing a "tiff" to erupt into a full-blown lawsuit, trial and appeal that has lasted five years at a cost that will dwarf the $40,000 Demuth sought in damages.
"What seems to be at stake here is little more than wounded pride," Kozinski wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel. "The dispute should have been resolved by an admission that the deputy violated Demuth's constitutional rights, followed by mutual apologies and a handshake, saving the taxpayers of Los Angeles County the considerable costs of litigating this tiff."
The incident occurred in 2010 at the Los Padrinos Juvenile Courthouse in Downey. Demuth checked into a courtroom where her client's case was to be heard and said she would return in the afternoon.
She then went to her office, located in the courthouse, to do other work.
Referee Heidi Shirley, a judicial officer, had more than 50 cases to deal with that day and wanted to dispose of Demuth's matter. Shirley had Sheriff's Deputy Wai Chiu R. Li, assigned to her courtroom, try to summon Demuth by page and telephone. Demuth heard at least one page and the ringing of her telephone but did not respond, the court said.
"This was not unusual," Kozinski wrote. "Lawyers, especially public defenders, were often absent from the courtroom when their case was called, and it typically took some time — and a few pages — to get them there."
At the time, Demuth was with Patricia De La Guerra Jones, her supervisor, working on an assignment.
Shirley then asked Li, who has since retired, to find Demuth.
"All right, I order Ms. Demuth to come to this courtroom," the 9th Circuit quoted Shirley as saying. "If she refuses, then Ms. De La Guerra Jones will have to come in and explain to me why this is happening."
Li found Demuth in her office with her supervisor and told Demuth that she was wanted in court. She was not ready to go and told him he would have to arrest her if he needed her that instant, according to the court.
"While challenging someone equipped with a badge, handcuffs and a gun to 'arrest me' was unwise on Demuth's part," Kozinski wrote, "we fail to see what legal difference her statement makes."
Demuth was obviously being sarcastic, Kozinski wrote, and in any case, could not have authorized her own arrest.
Li then cuffed Demuth and brought her to court. Demuth sued.
A lower court found the deputy had violated her 4th Amendment right to be free of unreasonable seizure but said Li had immunity as a government employee. The 9th Circuit disagreed.
"No reasonable officer could have understood the referee as ordering that Demuth be forcibly brought into court," Kozinski wrote.
Still, Kozinski said, no one in the case "covered himself with glory."
"Not the lawyer whose lackadaisical response to a judicial summons and disrespectful retort to a fellow court officer set off this unfortunate chain of events; not the supervisor who did not urge the lawyer to comply promptly with the deputy's repeated requests that she come to court or admonish her for her tart response to the deputy; not the deputy who took the bait and abused his power; not the judges of the Los Padrinos Juvenile Court, who, doubtless aware of the incident, failed to mediate a minor dispute among court officers and allowed it to metastasize into a federal case," Kozinski wrote.
The county hired outside law firms to defend it. Steven Renick, who represented the county before the 9th Circuit, said no decision has yet been made on whether to appeal. He said he did not know how much the county had spent in fighting the lawsuit.
"These were people who worked with each other regularly and didn't have any problems," Renick said. "It was just one of those incidents that spun out of control."
Demuth did not respond to a request for an interview.
Daniel A. Crawford, who represents Demuth, called the case "an insane waste of money" and blamed Los Angeles County. He said the county will now be required to pay her legal fees and costs, which, coupled with its own, will probably reach $1 million.
"This was standing up to a bully," Crawford said. "The first bully was a sheriff's deputy, but the real bully was the county of Los Angeles. The deputy made a mistake but the county should have known better."
Crawford said the dispute could have been resolved quickly had the Sheriff's Department immediately apologized to a "horribly embarrassed, enraged and humiliated" Demuth.
"Unfortunately for the taxpayer," Crawford said, "she is just not one to back down."