Suit against police assn. called highly unusual

The decision by Costa Mesa's mayor, his wife and another councilman to sue the city's police association and its former law firm for harassment, intimidation, libel and other alleged damages is a highly unusual step and possibly unprecedented for a sitting elected official, legal and labor experts said Wednesday.

"As far as I know, I've never seen it," UC Irvine School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky said. "It's very unusual, definitely."

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Orange County Superior Court, alleges a conspiracy against Mayor Jim Righeimer, his wife, Lene, and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger.

The three accuse Upland-based law firm Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir; Chris Lanzillo, a Menifee private investigator; and the Costa Mesa Police Officers' Assn. of harassment and defamation in the pursuit of political gain.

The lawsuit stems from an Aug. 22, 2012, incident in which a 911 caller, later identified as Lanzillo, followed then-Mayor Pro Tem Righeimer from a fellow councilman's bar to Righeimer's Mesa Verde home. Lanzillo reported that the motorist was driving erratically.

The call spurred a responding officer to conduct a field sobriety test for Righeimer at his home, while his children watched, according to the lawsuit.

Lene Righeimer approached Lanzillo, who was inside his parked car nearby, watching events unfold.

Righeimer quickly passed the sobriety test and later publicly produced a receipt for what he ordered that night: two Diet Cokes.

The mayor and his supporters have spearheaded a multiyear push to reduce public-employee compensation and reign in taxpayer spending.

Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, said he couldn't comment on the merit of the lawsuit itself, but from afar, "This looks like an ugly public dispute that is being fought on different arenas. So not only do they have this lawsuit regarding the police and unions, but now there's this so-called transparency policy that the City Council unilaterally imposed. There's just a lot of contention that is being fought on multiple fronts between the City Council and the employee unions."

Like Chemerinsky, Wong called the scenario unusual: "I have never heard of this type of lawsuit directed by an individual of a city council directed against an employee union."

Usually, such cases are more along the lines of unfair labor practice allegations, unilateral actions and contract disputes, he said.

Added Chemerinsky: "My instinct is this is obviously a nasty negotiation between the mayor and the police union ... was this just a nasty negotiation or did it really violate the law and create a civil cause of action in some way?"

A lot of "tense negotiations cause emotional distress," he said. "I think the most troubling thing here, from a legal perspective, is calling a false complaint on somebody."

Wong called the case a "highly personal" one.

"Those types of things do make headlines," he said. "I remember reading about it from afar, but the fact that a year later now there's a lawsuit and it's going on at the same type as the [dispute with the Costa Mesa City Employees Assn.] … it's just an example of how antagonistic and contentious this relationship is."

Righeimer and Mensinger make it clear in their lawsuit that their claim isn't directed at individual Police Department employees.

The lawsuit's opening statement says it is "neither about nor against the general rank-and-file police officers who diligently serve our communities in the face of grave danger, on a daily basis … "

They are paying for the lawsuit with their own money, not the city's.


'These kinds of wrongs'

That August night last year was a misstep from a cadre of politically and legally skilled enemies targeting the Righeimers and Mensinger, according to their lawyer.

"It's only when they make a mistake that they can get caught, and that's what I think happened here," said Vince Finaldi of Manly, Stewart & Finaldi, an Irvine-based firm.

Their lawsuit alleges, however, that such tactics are commonly used by Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir to gain the upper hand in contract negotiations for police.

"Until someone stands up to these kinds of wrongs, it's going to continue," Finaldi said. "And that's what this lawsuit is about."

In addition to the to-be-determined damages, if any, the action asks for an injunction or restraining order against the law firm, Lanzillo and the police association, barring them from using tactics like the ones laid out in the complaint.

In a statement emailed to the Daily Pilot on Wednesday, Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir called the lawsuit politically motivated.

"Unfortunately for Jim Righeimer and the other plaintiffs, this case will be tried in a civil court, not a press conference or a campaign fundraiser," managing partner Saku Ethir wrote. "Based on the reported allegations, this lawsuit is absolutely meritless. Of course in politics, allegations seem to be all you need to keep your name in the news."

Righeimer and Mensinger have not publicly discussed the lawsuit, referring all questions to their attorney.

Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir and Costa Mesa's police association have denied any responsibility for Lanzillo tailing Righeimer.

"For members of the Police Department, this is just another distraction that the current City Council is creating," police association President Ed Everett said.

He declined to discuss the lawsuit's specifics.

"We haven't been served officially," he added. "If there is some pending litigation, we're not going to comment."

Costa Mesa's police association president said last year that it dropped the law firm the week before the Aug. 22 DUI call.

The councilmen's lawsuit was filed two days before the one-year anniversary of the incident. Submitting it before the statute of limitations could have limited some claims, according to their lawyer.

They waited to file the action in an effort not to distract the Orange County district attorney's investigation of the incident.

"We're informed that the investigation is still pending," Finaldi said.

Representatives from the D.A.'s office did not return calls Wednesday asking about the status of the investigation.

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