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Police officer did not prove retaliation, damages overturned: Calif. court


LOS ANGELES—A California appellate court has overturned a $2.1 million jury verdict in a retaliation case brought by a Los Angeles police officer, concluding that the officer did not present evidence substantial enough to prove his claim.

According to Monday's ruling in Richard Joaquin vs. City of Los Angeles, Mr. Joaquin complained of sexual harassment by Sgt. James Sands in 2005. The police department concluded the complaint was unfounded. Sgt. Sands then filed a complaint against Mr. Joaquin, alleging the sexual harassment charge was spurious.

Following an internal affairs investigation, a Board of Rights hearing—a formal adjudication by two sworn officers and one civilian, in which an accused officer has the right to be represented by counsel and call witnesses—was held. The board concluded that Mr. Joaquin's charge was fabricated and recommended that he be terminated, which the Los Angeles police chief did in March 2006.

In September 2008, a court ordered Mr. Joaquin reinstated after concluding that “The Board of Rights' findings were not supported by the weight of evidence,” according to the opinion.

Mr. Joaquin then sued the city of Los Angeles, alleging that his termination was in retaliation for filing a sexual harassment complaint and in violation of the state Fair Employment and Housing Act. In May 2010, a jury awarded him $2.1 million for lost wages and emotional distress.

The city appealed.

“Having reviewed the entire record, we agree that that Joaquin did not present substantial evidence that his termination was motivated by retaliatory animus, a necessary element of his claim,” a three-judge state appellate court panel ruled unanimously earlier this week.

Based on the record before it, “the jury could not reasonably have concluded that the Board of Rights itself harbored any retaliatory animus towards Joaquin,” the appellate court ruled. “Further, he introduced virtually no evidence concerning the Board of Rights proceeding itself. Thus, there was no basis on which a jury could have concluded that the Board of Rights proceeding was, either in its structure, or conduct, motivated by retaliatory animus.”

“I think the plaintiff felt there was some sort of special protection because he had made sexual allegations and therefore could not be terminated by the employer,” Keith Watts, co-managing shareholder at law firm Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart P.C. in Costa Mesa, Calif., said in commenting on the case, in which he was not involved,

The city “went to great pains” before coming to a “reasonable, good faith conclusion” that the sexual harassment charge was false, said Mr. Watts.