SANTA ANA — A judge, overturning a jury verdict, has awarded $1.8 million to a former top-level official with the city of Santa Ana who claimed that he was fired because of his age and his efforts to expose wrongdoing in city hiring, the fired official said Wednesday.
Donald Bott, 55, of San Clemente, now interim personnel chief for the city of El Segundo, had asserted that Santa Ana city officials laid him off four years ago because he refused to "play ball" in tolerating alleged mismanagement and favoritism in city practices.
Six months ago, an Orange County Superior Court jury refused to award Bott damages as a result of his dismissal during a budget crunch after 17 years as director of personnel. But then, Judge Leonard Goldstein, in an unusual move, agreed to reconsider that decision, signaling that he found merit in Bott's claim.
Bott said his lawyer received notice this week that Goldstein, setting aside the jury's verdict, has held the city liable for $1.83 million. That is just shy of the amount Bott said he lost in earnings because of his abrupt dismissal in 1985, forcing him into unemployment and a bankruptcy filing.
Court records show Goldstein signed an order in the case last Friday.
Lawyers handling the case for Bott and the city of Santa Ana, as well as Goldstein and his court clerk, were on vacation Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.
Santa Ana City Atty. Edward J. Cooper, who did not try the case, said he has received no word yet of a decision. Cooper said he was surprised by the reported amount of the verdict but that he had expected some damages against the city in light of earlier rulings by Goldstein.
"I've felt all along that Judge Goldstein was in error in his rulings. I don't think the facts of the case warrant any verdict (for Bott)," Cooper said. He added that a verdict against the city would "unquestionably" be appealed.
The city asserted that it was forced to lay off Bott because of tight budget conditions in 1985 and that it was well within its rights to do so.
"He served at the will of the city," Cooper said, "and he had no vested right to remain as director of personnel."
Cooper said Bott's entire claim was built on an invalid agreement that Bott had made privately with the former city manager in the 1960s, assuring Bott a lower civil service position if he were ever let go as personnel head.
"It was an unlawful, secret agreement that emasculated the civil service system," Cooper maintained.
But Bott saw his dismissal differently.
A gray-haired man with a methodical manner, Bott asserted that he was the victim of a youth movement ushered in by then-City Manager A.J. Wilson. According to Bott, Wilson wanted to bring a fresher, sharper image to city government.
Bott also claimed that his position was abolished and that he was let go because he had fought "unconscionable managerial practices" during Wilson's regime as city manager. He alleged that Wilson and other city officials used their powers to bypass civil service requirements, putting under-qualified people in place of employees who were out of favor.
For example, Bott alleged in his lawsuit that Wilson demoted a long-tenured secretary and replaced her in a newly created position with a "young, attractive typist clerk who, in fact, did not meet the minimum qualifications established by the city."
Wilson was named a co-defendant but was not held liable for damages, according to Bott. Wilson said Wednesday that he had not heard about a decision and declined to discuss the case in detail, saying only: "He was laid off because of a budget cutback. That's it."
But Bott maintained in an interview Wednesday that "I was fired because I . . . wasn't playing ball with the management."
"I always knew I had a just case. I felt that the jury came to the wrong conclusion and that justice was denied me," Bott said. "This substantiates what I've been saying all along, and it was worth all the legal frustration."
One juror who heard the case in June, Lillian Fukuharu, said Wednesday: "He didn't prove his case to our satisfaction. . . . I really felt bad for (the Bott family), but the factors--age discrimination and all that--just wasn't there for us."
Times staff writers Catherine Gewertz and Jerry Hicks contributed to this story.