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Court tosses out big jury award

An ex-prosecutor loses $1.5-million judgment against the L.A. city attorney's office for alleged retaliation.

October 30, 2008|Phil Willon | Willon is a Times staff writer.

A state appeals court on Wednesday overturned a $1.5-million award for a former Los Angeles prosecutor who said City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo and other supervisors retaliated against her for filing a sex discrimination complaint and reporting misconduct by other attorneys.

The Court of Appeal in Los Angeles found that the evidence did not support Lynn Magnandonovan's allegation. The 2-1 ruling reversed a 2006 jury decision that also gave Magnandonovan substantial legal fees. Her attorney at the time called the awards "an indictment of the city attorney's office."

Instead, the appellate judges painted a far different picture: one of an unprofessional, problem employee who was openly hostile to judges, court officials and co-workers.

The appellate ruling found that Delgadillo had a legitimate reason for firing Magnandonovan in 2002 because she had "behaved in a wholly unacceptable manner before Superior Court judges." The decision was written by Presiding Justice Paul Turner, with Justice Sandy R. Kriegler concurring.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, October 31, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Magnandonovan case: In an article in Thursday's California section on a state appeals court ruling that overturned a $1.5-million award for former Los Angeles prosecutor Lynn Magnandonovan, a quote and statements expressing surprise that the justices had reversed the jury were incorrectly attributed to her attorney William N. Hancock. The comments were made by Hancock's co-counsel on the case, Jon B. Eisenberg.

Specifically, they pointed to a 2001 incident, when Magnandonovan complained bitterly about Court Commissioner Joseph Biderman to his court clerk. Magnandonovan, the clerk reported, told her that the commissioner would answer to "the creator" after he ruled against her when she failed to appear in a probation violation case. Biderman, who is now a Superior Court judge, took the remark as a "veiled reference" to the fact that he was gay, and he reported the incident to his superiors.

That incident alone was a "legitimate nondiscriminatory reason" to fire Magnandonovan, the appeals court stated.

Delgadillo praised the decision Wednesday, saying it affirmed his ability to maintain a staff that is "committed to justice and the highest ideals of the legal profession."

"Today, the Court of Appeal recognized that it is necessary for my office to take appropriate action in those instances, thankfully rare, when a member of our staff fails to meet the high standards our residents deserve," he said in a statement.

Magnandonovan's attorney, William N. Hancock, said Wednesday that he was shocked. The court, he said, in essence supplanted the jury's interpretation of the evidence with its own.

"The appellate courts normally don't second-guess juries in that way," Hancock said.

But he noted that the appeals court rejected the city's arguments that it was immune from liability in this case and that Magnandonovan should have appealed her dismissal through administrative channels before filing a lawsuit. Hancock said no decision has been made on whether to appeal the ruling to the California Supreme Court.

In his dissent, Justice Richard M. Mosk stated that there appeared to be "substantial evidence" to support the jury's finding that Magnandonovan's retaliation complaint was valid.

He also noted that, during the trial, Magnandonovan countered much of the evidence about her being hostile toward judges with plausible explanations. She also testified that she was unaware that Biderman was gay and that her comment was not a reference to his homosexuality.

"There was sufficient evidence in the record to allow the jury to infer that the misconduct was not as severe or outrageous as the city portrayed it," Mosk stated.

Magnandonovan had worked for the city attorney's office for 13 years. In her lawsuit, she said that supervisors retaliated against her for filing a state discrimination complaint and that they allowed "an environment offensive and hostile to females."

Magnandonovan said that in 1999, when James K. Hahn was city attorney, a female colleague accused her of "bad-mouthing" how the woman handled a felony case that was ultimately taken over by the U.S. attorney's office. The woman threatened Magnandonovan "professionally," the lawsuit stated.

Magnandonovan said that when she reported the incident to her supervisors, nothing was done. She felt that was a sign that her male supervisors perceived the alleged threats "as some type of 'catfight' between women and, thus, relatively unimportant," her lawsuit stated.

Magnandonovan filed a sex discrimination complaint with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, and a settlement was reached in which Hahn agreed to appoint her as supervisor of the city attorney's hate crimes unit. After she took the post, Magnandonovan said she suffered retaliation by her supervisors, who did not invite her to task force meetings on hate crimes or consult her on the office's proposed hate crimes legislation.

In December 2001, Magnandonovan's supervisors put her on administrative leave after investigating the incident involving Biderman. During that investigation, officials with the city attorney's office also interviewed judges, court personnel and co-workers who accused her of being caustic and demeaning.

During the trial, then Chief Deputy City Atty. Terree Bowers testified that, because of that evidence, he felt she needed to be fired.

"I thought that she was untrustworthy . . . and I thought she was damaging the credibility of the office by her continued practice in Superior Court," Bowers said.


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