LOS ANGELES — A jury May 19 found in favor of the city of West Hollywood in a case brought by a councilman’s former aide, who alleged she was fired for her role as a witness in an investigation into a colleague’s allegations of harassment and improper electioneering.
The Los Angeles Superior Court panel deliberated for about a day before finding that although Michelle Rex was the victim of retaliation, she would have lost her job anyway when her position and those of three others were eliminated by the city.
Rex’s attorney, Mark Quigley, said after the verdict that he believes it is unfortunate that a plaintiff who is proved to have been wronged can lose his or her case anyway based on one query on a jury verdict form.
“I truly think it’s an unfair question, but that is the law and it’s a big obstacle to overcome,” Quigley said. “One should not cancel out the other.”
Rex worked as a deputy to Councilman John D’Amico from March 2011 until she was fired in January 2016. She filed the lawsuit two months later, alleging wrongful discharge, retaliation and failure to prevent retaliation.
D’Amico and the council majority voted to eliminate Rex’s position and that of three others, including Ian Owens, a deputy to Councilman John Duran.
According to Quigley, Rex was a witness in the probe into allegations by Owens that he was harassed by his boss.
Owens also alleged improper solicitation and electioneering by Councilman John Heilman’s deputy, her suit states.
But defense attorney Steven Rothans told jurors that Rex, who made as much as $140,000 in some years, and the other council deputies lost their jobs because they were part of a “dysfunctional, problematic system” in which some deputies did not talk to each other.
The council deputy program in later years cost the city as much as $600,000 annually, Rothans said.
“It was a failed system, it never should have been implemented,” Rothans said.
But Rex’s suit alleged the city fired Rex and Owens “under the guise that such terminations were part of a restructuring of the deputy program” that was never discussed publicly.
City officials were “warned time and again” that their actions were “unfair and unlawful” and that they needed to investigate the harassment and electioneering complaints in a “truly independent manner,” the suit alleged.
“Ultimately, they could not be bothered to uphold the city’s professed core values and do the right thing,” the suit stated.
Rex routinely worked up to 80 hours a week and could have transitioned to a senior administrative role for the rest of her career had D’Amico left the council, the suit stated.
Although West Hollywood is touted as a “bastion of civil rights,” the city administration acted in “a shameful manner,” the suit alleged.
Owens also sued the city, alleging harassment and retaliation, and settled out of court, according to Rex’s court papers.