Day Eleven: Jury Decides for City in Michelle Rex Termination Lawsuit

An L.A. County Superior Court jury decided today that the City of West Hollywood had a legitimate reason to eliminate its 30-year-old council deputy system and that its decision to do so in June 2015 was not an act of retaliation against former deputy Michelle Rex.

The decision, rendered in an ten-to-two vote, brings to a close a two-week trial during which witnesses, letters, emails and videos resurrected the often-contentious relationship of some City Council deputies with one another, with their bosses, with other city workers and with West Hollywood residents. It also again cast a spotlight on Councilmember John Duran’s early sexual relationship with his deputy, Ian Owens, and Duran’s sexual braggadocio in front of city employees.

Mayor John Heilman responded to the jury verdict in favor of the city by remarking that “We could not be more pleased with the outcome of this case. The jury fulfilled its responsibility to closely scrutinize the facts and determined that plaintiff failed to prove her case. The verdict affirmed that the City Council’s decision to terminate the council deputy program was motivated by a desire to improve and reduce the cost of the city’s delivery of services to the community, and not to retaliate.

“The evidence put forward during the trial demonstrated to the jury that West Hollywood is an extremely well-run city with highly competent workplace management that takes seriously properly documented, legitimate claims of workplace misconduct.”

Michelle Rex

In her lawsuit, Rex claimed that losing her job as deputy to Councilmember John D’Amico caused her not only financial losses but physical and emotional damage. Reports were that she was hoping to win an award of $3 million.

The council’s decision to end the deputy system came many months after revelations that Owens had been monitoring the conversations of fellow deputy Fran Solomon. In an email sent out under a fake name, Owens alleged that Solomon was using the phone in her office during work hours to solicit participants in a photo shoot to promote the re-election of her boss, Mayor John Heilman. Solomon was reprimanded and docked two days pay after admitting that she violated City Hall rules.

The revelation that Owens had been monitoring Solomon’s telephone calls led to her filing a complaint against him for spying on her. Owens was put on paid leave while a private investigator looked into the matter. Owens then filed a lawsuit arguing that the city was retaliating against him for calling out Solomon’s electioneering and that he had been sexually harassed by Duran. The city and Duran settled that lawsuit for $500,000 with both denying Owens’ claims.

Faced with outcries from the public and negative press coverage over what came to be called “Deputygate,” the City Council ended the deputy system in June 2015 in a four-to-one vote, with only Councilmember Lauren Meister opposing the decision. But the city had to keep the deputies on paid administrative leave until the end of that year while it negotiated their departure with their five-member union.

The jury agreed in a 11 to one vote that Rex’s disclosure to the private investigator of alleging campaigning from City Hall by Fran Solomon and of improper sexual conversations by John Duran was a contributing factor in the city’s decision to terminate Rex’s employment. While Rex’s lawyers had stressed the electioneering and sexual harassment allegations, the city’s lawyers, Steve Rothans  and Jill Williams, noted that Rex had not reported them to any city official or its outside ombudsman. The jury also agreed unanimously that the city’s conduct was “a substantial motivating factor in causing harm” to Rex. A consultant engaged by her lawyer calculated that it would take her many years to get back to her city pay level of $105,000 a year. In some years, with benefits and bonuses added, Rex’s compensation was as much as $190,000.

But those conclusions were outweighed by the jury’s decision that the city had every right to have eliminated the deputy system “for legitimate, independent, non-retaliatory business reasons.”

That decision likely was supported by testimony during the trial from each of the City Council members that there were problems with the system. Even John D’Amico, who described Rex as an exemplary employee and said he had expected she would land another job at City Hall, had testified that there were problems with the deputy system.

Jana Moser and Mark Quigley, who represented Rex, said the city’s win was a result of Harris vs. Santa Monica, a 2013 decision by the California Supreme Court.

“When a plaintiff has shown by a preponderance of the evidence that discrimination was a substantial factor motivating his or her termination, the employer is entitled to demonstrate that legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons would have led it to make the same decision at the time,” the court ruled. “If the employer proves by a preponderance of the evidence that it would have made the same decision for lawful reasons, then the plaintiff cannot be awarded damages, back pay, or an order of reinstatement.”

Rex declined to discuss the decision with WEHOville.

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A Concerned Citizen
A Concerned Citizen
4 years ago

Dimitri, no, as a matter of fact, I didn’t read your response, nor did I even see it. I was responding to Jessica’s comments. If you have inside info on Duran’s reputation as an attorney and that situation, then so be it. I was just saying one Yelp review isn’t enough for me to make a judgment call. And I also said I wasn’t defending him or condemning him. I like to have information about people before I judge them, and one Yelp review wasn’t enough for me. And I DIDN’T question the credibility of the client who wrote the… Read more »

Dimitri Perparos
4 years ago

@ConcernedCitizen: Did you not read my response?? I was working at the law firm when this all went down. DO NOT question the credibility of this client who wrote the review! Duran tried to milk him for money not earned. The client took him before the BH Bar Association and WON his case. We ended up refunding the client. I’m confident this client would have taken his case further had he lived.

When the ONLY review anywhere to be found online for such a prominent public figure in the community is negative, that needs to tell you something!

A Concerned Citizen
A Concerned Citizen
4 years ago

Jessica, I realize that he only has one review. I didn’t say he had more than that. I said that you are going to let that one negative review form your opinion, which you certainly have. My “character and credibility” comment referred to the person who left the review. I will say no more about the man, because he is deceased. You don’t know the actual story of what happened any more than I do, based on that one review. So when you say “it was unfortunate that the reviewer didn’t also file a complaint with the California Bar Association,”… Read more »

Jessica Mitford
4 years ago

@A Concerned Citizen

Yelp lists many attorneys in West Hollywood. On average they have dozens of reviews, and many reach a five-star average. Consumer affair legal related websites also contain reviews on these attorneys.

Duran has only one review on Yelp. That’s it! Nothing else online. So I didn’t pick just one review because Duran only has one review available on social media. It was unfortunate that the reviewer didn’t also file a complaint with the California Bar Association.

As for character and credibility, that’s certainly not one of Duran’s strong points.

Dimitri Perparos
4 years ago

How about this review of Duran’s law firm. I used to work there and also knew the person who left that one review (who is tragically not with us anymore). Duran did NOT win the case that former client brought forth in front of the bar association. And if you knew how that former client was treated by Duran, you would know the true character of someone who’s got many many people fooled into thinking he’s a saint beyond reproach.

A Concerned Citizen
A Concerned Citizen
4 years ago

Jessica, sorry, I thought you had referenced the venue. Perhaps I read someone else’s comment (I can’t find it now). Regarding Duran’s reputation as an attorney, you are going to let one Yelp review determine your opinion about how he would have handled Owens’ case, had he hypothetically represented him? I happen to have known that person who left the review for Duran, and he is tragically no longer with us. I won’t say what happened to him, as you might use that to judge his character and credibility. I don’t know much about Duran’s expertise or reputation in his… Read more »

Jessica Mitford
4 years ago

A Concerned Citizen@ I’m well aware that the trial couldn’t be tried in West Hollywood or Beverly Hills. Rex’s lawsuit was filed downtown but, as a resident of Santa Clarita, she may have been able to file it in Northridge. If you live in Westwood you file in Santa Monica, all of this is available online if you’re interested. Downtown LA is known as the “bank” because awards can be big. As for Duran, who knows what he would do? He has only one review online as an attorney. Amazing, since he’s so prominent in legal circles and former Mayor… Read more »

Chris Sanger
Chris Sanger
4 years ago

Neither Horvath nor D’Amico defeated an incumbent.

George Hirst
George Hirst
4 years ago

At the very least it once again bought up the fact that John Duran is a perv at the work place. Shameful!

A Concerned Citizen
A Concerned Citizen
4 years ago

Chris Sanger, I don’t know who you are referring to with “you folks.” And saying things like “I assume you know what the word peripheral means,” is very condescending. Once again, Duran has some culpability for his unprofessional actions and failing to report this to HR. That doesn’t mean he deserved to be sued, or accused of sexual harassment. But, once again, he put the city at risk for these opportunists to jump on something. But, even worse, it resulted in bad press and a tarnish of public trust. Meister, Horvath and D’Amico’s wins (the latter in 2011) all prove… Read more »

Chris Sanger
Chris Sanger
4 years ago

Duran’s interaction with Owens, frankly even his hiring, were peripheral. Doesn’t mean irrelevant, but minor in importance. (I assume you know what the word peripheral means). Rex’s lawyers, and those constantly looking to condemn the very successful city government of WeHo, tried to make it the big issue. It was phony, and the jury saw through it. The issue seems to be that Rex and Owens, fearing the demise of their gravy train, tried to concoct unethically and alone meriting termination an attempt to help defeat Heilman for the sole purpose of keeping their gravy train going. I know that… Read more »

A Concerned Citizen
A Concerned Citizen
4 years ago

Zam, great summary and observations. Jessica, I believe that downtown was the closest venue for this trial. There are no courthouses in West Hollywood, and unless I am mistaken, the Beverly Hills courthouse was closed down (or part of it was). Either way, this trial was not going to take place in the City of West Hollywood. I agree that labeling Duran as “peripheral” to this situation is a bit naive. I don’t think he sexually harassed Owens. But he set the city up for major liability and risk by hiring him without consulting HR, after a sexual encounter. He… Read more »

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