By Zach Arnold | December 16, 2013
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge rejected a motion for summary judgment requested from the California Attorney General’s office during a Monday court hearing to determine the status of athletic inspector Dwayne Woodard’s age discrimination & retaliation lawsuit against the Department of Consumer Affairs & the California State Athletic Commission.
The court ruling on Monday clears the path for Woodard’s legal team to apply pressure on top political fixers at Consumer Affairs in regards to decisions they made that impacted his career as a veteran athletic inspector. Many of the top fixers at DCA are former chiefs-of-staff or legislative aides to top politicians in the California Democratic Party.
The judge’s ruling on Monday clears the path for pushing forward a case that, on paper, appears to rely on documents & inter-office memos as evidence. Translation: witnesses can change testimony but documents & facts don’t change at trial.
What’s at stake with the lawsuit against CSAC
The lawsuit alleges that age discrimination & retaliation by Consumer Affairs, which politically controls the California State Athletic Commission, has been ongoing since 2009. Key word: ongoing. Meaning it hasn’t stopped and that harm is still occurring. Harm still occurring means potentially more damages awarded by a jury. If the case doesn’t settle and goes to trial, it will be in the hands of a jury. And when it comes to LA Superior Court, the type of juror you can find on court cases is older, perhaps retired, and is sensitive to claims of discrimination.
Under California law, anyone over the age of 40 can legally file a claim based on age discrimination if warranted.
Think of the judge’s ruling on Monday this way — the clock has always been ticking, but today the ticking officially just got a whole lot louder. The longer this drags on, the price tag for a settlement increases and the chances of it going to trial increases. The more the Attorney General’s office is involved in the case, the more they will bill the California State Athletic Commission for their legal costs. That impacts CSAC’s bottom line. If the AG’s office has to go to trial, you are talking hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs that will suck cash away from CSAC. If Woodard goes to trial and wins, his legal team will ask for legal costs to be picked up via recovery. That would eat away at additional money set aside for CSAC’s budget.
The attorney representing the state in the case is Elisabeth Frater. She was a former deputy DA in San Francisco & Sacramento who tried to make it as a wine lawyer in Napa before heading to Los Angeles to work for the AG’s office. Woodard’s attorney, Farzad Tabatabai, is considered a very sharp trial lawyer. Proverbially-speaking, the AG’s office is bringing a knife to a gun fight here. Tabatabai not only is a good trial lawyer, he’s also a lawyer who has extensive experience in dealing with the AG’s office in athletic commission-related matters.
Why the state should try to settle as fast as possible
We know that when it comes to taxpayer money, state agencies don’t often treat cash with the same kind of respect that they treat their own checkbooks. In other words, if the state has to throw a bunch of money at a person in order to settle and make a lawsuit go away, they will do so. They will do so because political fixers want to protect their jobs and do not want career-damaging details to be revealed in court and in the press.
With Woodard’s case against Consumer Affairs proceeding, it opens up many employees at DCA for questioning via the deposition process. Information from depositions is not confidential unless the parties involved agree to make such information private. Deposition information can be made public in court filings and at the trial.
The longer Woodard’s case proceeds in court, the greater the chances increase of a top political fixer being forced to resign from their state job in order to save their retirement pension. If the case goes to trial, all hell will break loose because of the potential names involved in the alleged acts of age discrimination & retaliation.
As the case proceeds in LA Superior Court, it is possible to guess that DCA will attempt to throw former Chief Athletic Inspector Che Guevara & former Executive Officer Bill Douglas under the bus by claiming that they were acting on their own against Woodard. However, there is the issue of color of law. It is going to be very hard to make the case that Guevara & Douglas were acting on their own and weren’t being enabled or backed by political and/or legal fixers at Consumer Affairs. Somebody gave them guidance or protection to make the decisions they made while working at the Athletic Commission. The longer Woodard’s case lingers in LA Superior Court, the higher the risk for DCA in having some of their prized staffers get outed and placed on the cutting block.
What would the price of a settlement or guilty verdict be?
In the case of Consumer Affairs, you don’t have to look far to find an (ugly) example of what kind of price tag the state would consider to make a case go away. Dave Thornton, a decades-old Consumer Affairs (slick) worker, was the interim Executive Officer at the California State Athletic Commission after Armando Garcia was pushed out over a $75,000 sexual harassment settlement with Lily Galvez, who still is listed as an active athletic inspector in Sacramento.
The irony of replacing Garcia with Thornton was that Thornton had cost DCA a lot of money with his own sexual harassment & discrimination settlement. Former DCA employees were able to settle claims against Thornton & DCA to the tune of a reported $750,000 cash amount, according to The Sacramento Bee.
I suppose it would be fair to estimate that, given the perceived strength of Woodard’s case, $750,000 as a baseline for a settlement figure would make sense. The issue at hand right now is that, in my opinion, the State has little understanding of the gravity of Woodard’s case in regards to how many skeletons from DCA’s closet could be revealed in public. And the prospects of having a trial exposing all the dirty laundry should make Sacramento somewhat nervous.
Should Woodard’s case go to trial, the issue then becomes what kind of monetary damages would be awarded by a jury if a guilty verdict was handed down. The damages would be awarded based on civil rights violations and that’s one of the unpredictable aspects you can face when it comes to figuring out how much a jury will award a victim. But in a lot of California cases involving monetary damages for civil rights violations, the amount that juries award victims can be really high in price. For example, several years ago there was a lawsuit filed by former Fresno State women’s basketball coach Stacy Johnson-Klein over claims of sexual discrimination & gender harassment. The price tag for the California State University system? $9 million dollars. Here’s the catch: the jury initially awarded Johnson-Klein with a $19.1 million verdict that was later reduced to $9 million with verdict + recovery fees.
Bottom line? When it comes to juries and civil rights violations, especially involving a state agency, the damages awarded can be astronomical in scope. If Dwayne Woodard’s case is as reliant on documentary evidence as believed, then it’s a real problem for Consumer Affairs & the Athletic Commission.