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Federal Trial For Lawsuit Against Santa Maria Delayed Until August

A federal trial for a whistleblower lawsuit filed by three past and current Santa Maria police lieutenants has been delayed until August as mediation continues.

U.S. District Judge Jay Gandi initially had set a Dec. 1 start date for the trial. He later approved postponing until March 2016 before rescheduling it again, this time for August 2016.

Former lieutenants Dan Ast and Norm Comé and current Lt. James Ginter have sued the city of Santa Maria, the Police Department and several individual members of the staff, claiming wrongful termination and other employment-related allegations. 

City Manager Rick Haydon and Police Chief Ralph Martin also are listed as defendants as well as former deputy city manager Alicia Lara and former police chief Danny Macagni.

All sides met in April for a mediation session before retired federal Judge John Leo Wagner, according to court paperwork that labeled the full day of settlement efforts productive.

Another mediation session occurred in August, when the mediator recommended the settlement talks continue. 

“The parties have been diligently involved in settlement efforts since the last mediation,” according to paperwork filed by the plaintiff’s attorneys, Nye Peabody, Stirling, Hale & Miller. 

“The negotiations have taken longer than expected given the various schedules of the mediators, counsel, and out-of-state insurers; however, the parties are continuing in their efforts to settle.”

In addition to settlement talks, both sides continue work toward a trial, attorneys noted in the Oct. 27 court document.

The federal lawsuit was filed in April 2014.

The lawsuit’s first amended complaint, filed in August 2014, cites 11 causes of action, including alleged violations of California Labor Code prohibiting retaliation, violation of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, violation of laws about disability discrimination, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The defendants’ attorneys deny the allegations.

The plaintiffs are seeking compensatory damages, including lost wages, earnings, retirement benefits, reinstatement for Ast, elimination of the discipline against Comé, civil penalties, attorneys’ fees, judgment for emotional distress, and punitive and exemplary damages.

In all, they are seeking more than $5 million, the lawsuit documents claim.

Many of the complaints are the same the police lieutenants testified to during the arbitration hearing for Ast’s efforts to get his job back after being fired for his role in the 2012 fatal shooting of Officer Albert Covarrubias Jr. 

Earlier this year, a hearing officer  recommended the city rehire Ast, a suggestion city leaders rejected. 

In a letter to Ast, the city manager said the hearing officer failed to consider all the evidence, and explained the lieutenant would not be rehired because he demonstrated “incompetence, lack of good leadership, and highly questionable decision making” in the Covarrubias incident.

The lawsuit was amended in April to incorporate a 12th cause of action because the city declined to rehire Ast.

The three lieutenants say they faced retaliation after reporting police officers working beyond the 16-hour fatigue factor, officers drunk on the shooting range, and “general favoritism” by the former chief.

The plaintiffs contend some eight internal affairs investigations were filed against them.

In response to the lawsuit, the city’s attorneys cited more than 45 defenses, including expired statute of limitations, failure to exhaust internal grievance procedures and absolute privilege under a law relating to public employees.

They also contend some claims were barred by statutes of limitation and the “doctrine of unclean hands,” a rule of law that contends a plaintiff must be innocent of wrongdoing or unfair conduct relating to the subject matter of the claim. 

While Ast was terminated, Comé was forced into medical retirement, the complaint said. Ginter continues to work for the agency.

The police lieutenants are represented by the Santa Barbara-based law firm, while the city has hired Lawrence, Beach, Allen & Choi in Glendale. Macagni has hired his own attorney from the Riverside-based firm of Haight Brown and Bonesteel.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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