One current and one former deputy Huntington Beach city attorney are suing City Attorney Michael Gates, alleging that he discriminated against them because of their age and created a hostile work environment intended to push them out for younger employees.
The pair’s attorney, Bernard Alexander, filed a federal complaint Jan. 4 in U.S. District Court on behalf of Neal Moore, 73, a former senior deputy city attorney who worked for the city for about 14 years, and Scott Field, 62, a current senior deputy city attorney who has been employed with Huntington Beach for about 22 years.
Moore and Field are requesting a jury trial in District Judge David Carter’s courtroom.
They are seeking unspecified damages and attorney’s fees and requesting that Field be reinstated to assistant city attorney, his original position. They also want Huntington Beach to modify its promotion process.
According to the lawsuit, Gates has made a “concerted effort” to push out, displace and replace older employees with younger staff members since he was first elected in 2014. The complaint alleges Gates purposely assigned excessive duties with unreasonable deadlines and unachievable tasks to point out fault and poor performance by Field and Moore.
Both attorneys hadn’t faced any form of discipline before Gates took office and they exhausted efforts to remedy tensions with Gates before taking legal action, Alexander said Tuesday.
“It’s a clear-cut case where Gates decided that these employees had already proven they couldn’t be useful in advancing his administration,” Alexander said. “It’s contrived instances of discipline in order to push out these older, well-established attorneys.”
Gates said Monday that he was surprised by the lawsuit and dismissed the claims, contending the issue has never been about age but about results and performance. Gates said people will “see the truth” when the lawsuit plays out.
He said he is evaluating his next move.
In 2017, the lawsuit states, Gates hired two “substantially younger attorneys” — who were about 40 and 35 at the time — to take over trial-related duties performed by Moore since he was hired in 2004. Moore was later relegated to entry-level work, according to the suit.
In 2018, the complaint says, Moore was demoted three classifications for incidents of alleged misconduct — two of which occurred two years earlier — resulting in about a 35% salary cut. Moore resigned later that year because of “intolerable work conditions” created by Gates, according to the suit.
The complaint alleges Field faced similar hurdles created by Gates in an attempt to push him to resign, though he remains on staff after two demotions.
According to the lawsuit, Gates repeatedly disciplined Field with written reprimands, humiliated him in front of colleagues and reduced his workload to the equivalent of an unlicensed law clerk. Field also alleges Gates issued him verbal and written reprimands for taking protected medical leave to treat his cataracts beginning in 2016.
Alexander and Gates both declined to describe the specific circumstances when Moore and Field were written up.
Gates called it a personnel matter but said he talked to them privately about their performance.
Before he was elected, Gates said, the city attorney’s office had a reputation and history of low performance. When he was running for the position, he said his plan was to fight lawsuits to get better legal results and save taxpayers money on settlements.
He said assignments are distributed on a case-by-case basis and that all staff members are expected to work hard and produce results.
“I’ve asked all my attorneys to increase their level of professionalism and to produce better results, and for a couple of people it was a challenge and for others it wasn’t,” Gates said. “We put emphasis only on good legal performance, and when people fall below a standard, we have to correct it and deal with it.”
A similar legal battle occurred in Newport Beach last year when a former assistant city attorney accused her one-time boss, City Attorney Aaron Harp, of ageism and sexism.
The city settled the case for $150,000 while denying the claims against Harp. He also denied wrongdoing.