Suit against police assn. called highly unusual

Councilmen's action against officers association and its former attorneys is possibly unprecedented, legal and labor experts agree.

August 21, 2013|By Jeremiah Dobruck and Bradley Zint

The decision by Costa Mesa's mayor, his wife and another councilman to sue the city's police association and its former law firm for harassment, intimidation, libel and other alleged damages is a highly unusual step and possibly unprecedented for a sitting elected official, legal and labor experts said Wednesday.

"As far as I know, I've never seen it," UC Irvine School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky said. "It's very unusual, definitely."

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Orange County Superior Court, alleges a conspiracy against Mayor Jim Righeimer, his wife, Lene, and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger.


The three accuse Upland-based law firm Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir; Chris Lanzillo, a Menifee private investigator; and the Costa Mesa Police Officers' Assn. of harassment and defamation in the pursuit of political gain.

The lawsuit stems from an Aug. 22, 2012, incident in which a 911 caller, later identified as Lanzillo, followed then-Mayor Pro Tem Righeimer from a fellow councilman's bar to Righeimer's Mesa Verde home. Lanzillo reported that the motorist was driving erratically.

The call spurred a responding officer to conduct a field sobriety test for Righeimer at his home, while his children watched, according to the lawsuit.

Lene Righeimer approached Lanzillo, who was inside his parked car nearby, watching events unfold.

Righeimer quickly passed the sobriety test and later publicly produced a receipt for what he ordered that night: two Diet Cokes.

The mayor and his supporters have spearheaded a multiyear push to reduce public-employee compensation and reign in taxpayer spending.

Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, said he couldn't comment on the merit of the lawsuit itself, but from afar, "This looks like an ugly public dispute that is being fought on different arenas. So not only do they have this lawsuit regarding the police and unions, but now there's this so-called transparency policy that the City Council unilaterally imposed. There's just a lot of contention that is being fought on multiple fronts between the City Council and the employee unions."

Like Chemerinsky, Wong called the scenario unusual: "I have never heard of this type of lawsuit directed by an individual of a city council directed against an employee union."

Usually, such cases are more along the lines of unfair labor practice allegations, unilateral actions and contract disputes, he said.

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