Jury finds Cooley didn't violate 2 union leaders' civil rights

The jurors reject claims that retired L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley retaliated against the two former union leaders by transferring them to other positions.

December 22, 2012|By Jack Leonard, Los Angeles Times
  • Jurors took about 1 1/2 hours to conclude that then-Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley and his office reassigned two prosecutors for legitimate management reasons.
Jurors took about 1 1/2 hours to conclude that then-Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

A federal civil jury has rejected claims that retired Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley violated the civil rights of two former leaders of the union that represents county prosecutors when they were transferred to other positions within the district attorney's office.

One of Cooley's lawyers hailed the verdict in the long-running dispute as an important legal victory, saying jurors took about 11/2 hours to conclude that the then-district attorney and his office reassigned the prosecutors for legitimate management reasons. Brian Hershman, a partner with the law firm Jones Day, which represented Cooley and the county, argued that the two union officials had problems in the office and needed to be transferred.

"This is a complete vindication for Mr. Cooley and the district attorney's office," Hershman said after Wednesday's verdict. "People were not retaliated against."

Steve Ipsen and Hyatt Seligman, who each served terms as president of the union, alleged that Cooley moved them to dead-end jobs in violation of their 1st Amendment rights to free speech and association with the union. Both men were outspoken critics of Cooley, who served three terms as district attorney until retiring this month. Ipsen challenged Cooley in the 2008 election for district attorney, coming in a distant third.

The federal lawsuit was one of several legal disputes between Cooley and the union's top leaders. In 2010, a county employment commission hearing officer concluded that Cooley waged an illegal anti-union campaign in which he and his staff harassed and unfairly disciplined union officers. Cooley and the county have filed a lawsuit alleging that the hearing officer was biased and engaged in misconduct during the proceedings.

In the federal trial that ended Wednesday, Ipsen's lawyer, Joseph Y. Avrahamy, argued that his client was moved several times and given poor job evaluations after he ran against Cooley and pushed for the Assn. of Deputy District Attorneys to become a full-fledged union. Seligman's attorney, Bradley Gage, argued that the veteran prosecutor was treated well until Seligman became involved with the union, after which he was transferred twice and passed over for promotion.

Hershman told jurors that the transfers had nothing to do with union politics and that Cooley's managers, not the district attorney himself, were responsible for the reassignments.

Ipsen, he said, was moved after he was rude to his supervisor at the Inglewood office, comparing her to Jewish collaborators in Nazi Germany. At the same time, he was repeatedly late for work and court appearances, upsetting at least one judge, Hershman told jurors. Other transfers were made only after Ipsen had requested to be moved, Hershman said.

Hershman argued that Seligman failed to act appropriately as a manager, making sexual references and using profanity during a meeting with his new subordinates. One prosecutor filed a complaint alleging that Seligman had created a hostile work environment.

Eighteen months later, Seligman failed to report an allegation of workplace harassment when he heard that a prosecutor had used a racial slur when talking to a black secretary, Hershman told jurors. As a result, office managers decided Seligman should be reassigned, he said.

Seligman said he disagreed with the verdict but would respect the jury's conclusion. Ipsen released a statement after the verdict saying he would continue to fight the case in court.

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