Wednesday, September 11, 2019
Court of Appeal:
Opinion Says Evidence Shows Adjudicators Who Thought Parking Tickets Had Been Issued Inappropriately Were Told to Change Their Decisions and Deny Refunds of Posted Fines
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A decision by Div. Three of the Court of Appeal for this district has thrown the spotlight on corruption, virtually admitted by the City of Los Angeles, in its handling of appeals from parking tickets, with the opinion revealing that the city pressured hearing officers to scrap determinations that motorists were faultless and substitute findings that the posted fines could be retained.
In an unpublished decision filed Monday, Justice Halim Dhanidina said:
“Plaintiffs’ action revealed that, for years, the City had been pressuring, sometimes successfully, hearing examiners to change decisions, usually to find that refunds were not warranted. In short, the public had been deprived of independent and impartial hearings. Instead, the City undermined the process provided by the Vehicle Code to generate revenue.”
Under that process, a motorist who protests a parking fine is entitled to an initial review and, if that doesn’t result in a nullification of the citation, may have an administrative hearing—but only after putting up the amount of the fine. The case arises from actions filed by two part-time hearing officers who were fired by the city after—and, they alleged, because—they complained of attempts to coerce them into changing their decisions in favor of the city.
The opinion affirms judgments and orders in the case tried in the courtroom of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ernest M. Hiroshige.
The appellants were Todd Hawkins and Hyung Kim, both discharged in November 2013.
Finding liability under California’s whistleblower statute, jurors awarded $238,531 to Hawkins and $188,631 to Kim. Hiroshige tacked on a $20,000 penalty under the Private Attorney General Act (“PAGA”) awarded the plaintiffs $1,054,286.88 in attorney fees.
The city appealed, arguing there was insufficient evidence and instructional error. During the pendency of the appeal, Kim died and Lawrence A. Dean II was appointed as “Guardian Ad Litem for Unknown and Unascertained Successor in Interest or Estate Representative.”
In his opinion, Dhanidina said that Hawkins and Kim each complained in writing of the West Los Angeles acting office manager, Carolyn Walton-Joseph, and Civic Center office manager Kenneth Heinsius pressuring them to change their decisions, in violation of the Vehicle Code.
One of the hearing officers who testified said that Heinsius and Walton-Joseph had instructed her to change decisions, remarking:
“Liable. Liable. Liable. Everything had to be liable.”
The opinion recites that 14 hearing officers, including Hawkins and Kim, had complained to Ricardo Sanchez, who managed the Van Nuys office, of Heinsius and Walton-Joseph deterring the making of refunds to those who paid fines pursuant to citations erroneously issued—with no action being taken.
An anonymous letter from Hawkins, followed up by a signed letter, to the city’s Department of Transportation’s then-general manager, Jaime de la Vega, complained of the pressuring to change decisions as well as Walton-Joseph’s abusive conduct.
An internal investigation by Wayne Garcia, a division head, ensued; after interviewing hearing officers, he found the allegations substantiated; Robert Andalon, the department’s assistant manager, found the evidence lacking. He recommended reminding hearing officers to follow instructions in their training manuals and telling managers to follow the law, and declared the matter closed.
Concession of Illegality
“The City makes no argument that such conduct complies with the Vehicle Code, and we therefore treat this as a concession the conduct is illegal.”
The jurist said there was “overwhelming evidence that Walton-Joseph and Heinsius pressured hearing examiners to change decisions, thereby giving the City a motive to fire people who complained.”
Complaints by Hawkins and Kim of that pressure came shortly before they were discharged, establishing a causal link, Dhanidina declared.
He said the plaintiffs established a prima facie case of retaliation; the city countered with legitimate reasons for firing them by pointing to deficiencies in the performance of each; but the jury had adequate evidence before it to support a finding that the reasons were pretextual. Hawkins was fired based on a matter that had come under scrutiny two years earlier, with no action taken at the time.
Dhanidina rejected the city’s contention that attorney fees were improperly awarded, writing:
“Here, the City argues that a significant benefit was not conferred on the public because all the action did was remedy retaliation for whistleblowing. However, the City ignores the trial court’s finding that the action also conferred a significant public benefit because the public is entitled to fair hearings with respect to parking citations. The Vehicle Code entitles the public to “an independent, objective, fair, and impartial review of contested parking violations.”
He added in a footnote:
“The City also suggests that no benefit was conferred on the public because the internal investigation Garcia conducted found no instances of misconduct. In other words, the City did not engage in misconduct because the City said so.”
The case is Hawkins v. City of Los Angeles, B279719.
David P. Myers and D. Smith of The Myers Law Group in Hollywood represented the appellants and Deputy Los Angeles City Attorney Paul L. Winnemore acted for the city.
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