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Verdict Over Firing Issued

Lawyers for Oxnard and a former city official both claim victory after the complicated ruling.

November 22, 2003|Tracy Wilson | Times Staff Writer

A federal jury has found that public statements by Oxnard's former finance director questioning the profitability of a municipal golf course were a factor in the decision to fire him.

But jurors also concluded that the city would have terminated Phillip Molina anyway -- a finding that prompted both sides to claim victory in the case.

Further complicating matters is an error in the verdict form in which jurors answered a question that, based on other findings, they were not supposed to consider. Jurors went on to award Molina $595,000 in damages, but city attorneys contend the error nullifies any award.

"There is a serious issue about the internal inconsistency of the verdict," Oxnard City Atty. Gary Gillig said. "I am of the firm belief that this matter is not concluded by any means."

Molina, 56, sued the city and its top administrator after being fired four years ago amid debate over financing of the River Ridge Golf Course. Molina alleged he lost his job after refusing to "cook the books" to make the golf course look profitable at a time when the city was considering whether to build a second course. He also alleged that the city manager slandered him in comments to the media and a former councilwoman.

The lawsuit alleged wrongful termination, slander and three other causes of action. All except the slander claim were thrown out by U.S. District Judge Christina A. Snyder. When that case went to trial in August 2001, a jury rejected Molina's claim. He appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the verdict but reversed Snyder's decision to throw out the other causes of action.

A second trial began earlier this month, and the jury issued its decision Wednesday.

It found that Molina proved that his public statements regarding financing of the golf course were a motivating factor in the decision to fire him. The jury further found, however, that there was no intentional infliction of emotional distress. And it concluded that the city proved Molina's employment would have been terminated regardless of his statements.

The verdict form instructed jurors not to answer a follow-up question if they ruled in favor of the city. But jurors answered the question anyway, concluding that Molina had proved he suffered an injury.

"It is clear that we won," said Los Angeles attorney Edward Lear, who represented Molina. "The issue is whether the special verdict will be set aside as a result of being inconsistent."

Patricia Kinaga, a Los Angeles attorney who represented Oxnard in the case, disputed that assessment.

"Notwithstanding any possible mistaken belief by Mr. Molina, the city has prevailed in this case," Kinaga said. "Mr. Molina has not been awarded any damages because, although he was found to have exercised his 1st Amendment rights, the city prevailed in showing that it had a legitimate legal reason for ending his employment."

A judgment has not been entered by Snyder. Kinaga said the city would take the position that Molina was not entitled to damages based on the verdict. Lear said jurors clearly intended to compensate Molina for his termination. Lear said he would oppose any motion by the city to block the award of damages.

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