Monday, January, 25, 2010
C.A. Throws Out County Official’s Suit Against Cooley Over Search
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Damage claims by a Los Angeles County official and his wife against District Attorney Steve Cooley and the county over searches of the official’s home and the wife’s business have been ordered dismissed by this district’s Court of Appeal.
In a Dec. 23 decision, certified yesterday for publication, Div. Three ruled that Cooley and the county possess prosecutorial and sovereign immunity from claims by Charles and Alane West.
The court granted a writ of mandate directing summary adjudication in favor of the defendants on claims they violated the Wests’ civil rights and breached a duty to safeguard property taken in the searches.
The searches were part of a public corruption probe into allegations that a developer had been given unlawful assistance in his effort to obtain contracts to build three large office buildings and lease them to the county.
Newspaper reports in 2005 said investigators from Cooley’s office were seeking evidence, including proposals, bids, contracts, correspondence or computer files, connecting Charles West with the West Los Angeles development firm Sonnenblick-Del Rio. Among the evidence sought was documentation of a ski trip to Breckenridge, Colo., as well as “vacations to the Caribbean, Europe or any other destinations” taken by West, his wife, and the development firm’s partners, Robert Sonnenblick and Nelson Del Rio, and their wives.
At the time of the probe, West—who still works for the county, but in a lesser capacity, and who is also a lawyer—was director of real estate under then-County Administrative Officer David Janssen, while Alane West was a principal of two companies, Interstate Equities II LLC and Primare.
West was placed on administrative leave on the day of the searches, which authorized investigators to look for evidence of communications between Charles West and Sonnenblick-Del Rio. Several computers that were seized were returned to the Wests, along with other property, but the Wests claimed in their complaint that items were damaged.
The Wests also claimed they were confronted by 10 to 12 individuals “with semiautomatic guns drawn and cameras rolling at dawn’s early light” on the day investigators searched their home. The couple say they were patted down in front of neighbors and had their passports seized and held for several months, depriving them of their constitutional right to travel.
The Wests pled causes of action for violation of civil rights under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 and the analogous Civil Code Sec. 52.1, and for breach of involuntary bailment.
West also sought a writ of mandate to remedy alleged violations of his employment rights, but those issues were severed and stayed and were not part of the appeal.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Shook denied the defendants’ motion for summary adjudication, saying that immunity attached to their actions leading up to the search, but not for any wrongful retention or destruction of those items after that. The case was to go to trial last spring, but the Court of Appeal stayed it pending consideration of the writ petition.
Justice Richard Aldrich, writing for the Court of Appeal, said Cooley and the county were immune from the plaintiffs’ claims under both state and federal law.
The state claims, the justice said, fail under Government Code Secs. 821.6 and 815.2, immunizing counties and employees who conduct investigations against liability for injuries caused “by acts committed by the officers to institute or prosecute a judicial or administrative proceeding” if “the conduct of the officers while instituting or prosecuting the proceeding was within the scope of their employment.”
“The trial court denied summary adjudication based on the prosecutorial immunity of Government Code section 821.6 on the misconception that it applied only to actions taken in preparation for formal proceedings and did not cover the complaint’s ‘broader’ allegations of prolonged retention and damage of property after the search and seizure on September 14, 2005. But...the immunity is dependent not on when the acts occurred, but whether they are causally connected to the investigation and prosecution....Here, all of the acts of which plaintiffs complain were triggered by allegations of criminal activity and were part of the investigation and prosecution process, even after the decision was made not to file charges, and so they are immunized by Government Code section 821.6.”
Aldrich went on to say that Cooley was also immune as to the federal cause of action, in which it was alleged that he violated the plaintiffs’ rights because his policies, custom, procedures, and failure to adequately train staff led to the unlawful retention and damaging of the plaintiffs’ property.
The justice explained that under California law, the district attorney, in formulating such policies and procedures, acted as a state, rather than a county, official, and as a state official has absolute immunity under the Eleventh Amendment and the doctrine of sovereign immunity.
Santa Monica attorney Richard L. Knickerbocker, who represents the Wests, said yesterday he is preparing a petition for review by the California Supreme Court. He said he did not oppose the request for publication of the opinion because he agreed with the county that the issues were sufficiently important to warrant publication and that the panel’s agreement on that point makes review more likely.
But the attorney for Cooley and the county, Douglas Fee of Collins Collins Muir & Stewart, said the decision “is an application of existing principles to a fact pattern where several of the immunities intersected” and “not really unusual” enough to merit Supreme Court review.
The case is County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (West), 10 S.O.S. 309.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company