Thursday June 3, 2004

Expensive harassment trial begets more expenses
After a $3.5-million jury award, city is spending even more money to prevent future claims.

By Darleene Barrientos

GLENDALE - The city's most publicized trial could also be its most expensive.

Costs to defend a lawsuit filed by three female Glendale Police officers, plus the cost of appealing their $3.5-million award, could reach beyond $2 million before defense and plaintiffs' attorneys are finished with the case.

And in light of the jury's findings, the city will continue to pay to head off potential problems with discrimination, harassment and retaliation.

The city paid $1.6 million to the law firm Liebert Cassidy Whitmore to defend the case last year, in a trial that lasted more than three months. The lawsuit was filed in 2001 by Glendale Police officers Katie Frieders, Renae Kerner and Jamie Franke, who alleged they suffered harassment, discrimination and retaliation when they rejected their supervisors' romantic advances.

The jury took 15 days to reach a verdict and give the plaintiffs the multi-million dollar award, which was announced June 2, 2003. The city decided to appeal the verdict in September; no deadline has been set for the appeal.

While the city and the plaintiffs take the case through the appeals process, the verdict amount gains 7% interest for every year it is not paid. That means, should the amount be upheld, that it has grown $245,000 over the past 365 days, bringing the total to nearly $3.75 million.

An estimated $19,200 also has been spent since the city hired Los Angeles law firm Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker to handle the city's appeal. Liebert Cassidy Whitmore is appealing the costs to defend three Glendale Police sergeants who were named in the lawsuit but later dropped from the complaint.

Glendale City Atty. Scott Howard declined to specify what the city would argue in its appeals. Estimating the total cost of all of the appeals is premature, Howard said, but he is confident the process will be worth the money and time spent.

"It depends on the level and the extent of the work. We're developing a very strong, powerful brief," he said. "We're estimating it could cost up to six figures -- low six figures."

For the plaintiffs and the city, settling the case out of court would be a desirable way to wrap it up, both sides acknowledge. But they can't agree on a settlement.

A settlement offer asking for $799,000 for Franke and about $499,000 for Kerner and Frieders was delivered to the city's defense attorneys Jan. 21, 2003, plaintiffs' attorney Brad Gage said.

The city will go forward with the appeal, but not without leaving a door open to consider a settlement.

"It makes sense to appeal a verdict like this," Howard said. "That doesn't mean we're not open to sitting down with Mr. Gage or a mediator or anyone else and looking at a reasonable and responsible settlement.

"[Gage's] idea of mediation is to pay the judgment. That's not mediation. Mediation is where both sides come to the table and come up with a reasonable resolution."

Howard declined to comment on what he believes would be a reasonable resolution.

"In general terms, it might be something that both parties would feel uncomfortable with but a mediator would think is fair," he said.

The cost of the trial and its appeal is just one aspect of how the case has affected the city. Because the jury found that each of the women was subjected to a hostile work environment, the city has taken a hit to its wallet while trying to prevent future problems and potential lawsuits.

One action the city took almost immediately after the verdict was to establish a police resource team, made up of two city attorneys and an outside lawyer. The three were available for 45 days for any complaints or concerns from police employees about behavior they might have experienced or witnessed at the department.

The prescribed 45 days stretched out another 60 days for several reasons, in part because some interviews lasted as long as five hours, Howard said. City staffers are preparing a report of the team's work to be submitted to the City Council.

The cost for the team's work was mainly in hours spent investigating, but also cost $37,000 for an outside lawyer to be involved, Howard said. The trial verdict also was behind the City Council's approval of an annual expense of $135,000 for a new, citywide investigative unit to be run out of the city's internal audit division. The funds will be used to pay the salary of a senior investigator and to hire contract investigator services.

The application period for the senior investigator position recently closed and officials are in the process of reviewing the applications. The top 12 applicants will be interviewed this month, city auditor Bill Fox said.

The investigator will look into serious complaints of harassment or discrimination, which were sent to department managers in the past. In the future, if a Glendale Police officer makes a complaint of discrimination, the grievance would be forwarded to the citywide investigator, rather than to the department's internal affairs bureau. Officials hope the formation of an independent investigation unit will ensure the integrity of inquiries into complaints of discrimination or retaliation.

"We wanted to ensure again that there is beyond any shadow of a claim that any review of a complaint or a concern is fully independent," Fox said.

Gage contends the city's steps are an expensive illusion.

"I haven't seen any change," he said. "My clients continue to suffer retaliation and harassment. The city continues to pay to defend itself but not to fix the problem."

Fixing the problem would be taking corrective action promptly and significantly against the people harassing their co-workers, and not punishing people coming forward to complain, Gage said.

"Instead, we find that the people who did the harassment [in the lawsuit] got preferred jobs, such as working in internal affairs," he said.