Monday, June 30, 2003
County Held Not Liable for Trammell’s Conduct Toward Woman
By Kenneth Ofgang, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
Los Angeles County bears no liability to a woman who claimed that she was coerced into having repeated sex with former Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George W. Trammell III after he presided over a criminal case in which she and her husband were defendants, the Court of Appeal for this district has ruled.
Barring review by the state Supreme Court, the decision apparently puts to an end to the litigation by Pifen Lo and her family arising out of the scandal that cost Trammell his job, his pension, and two years of his freedom after 26 years on the bench.
The plaintiffs, after three appellate decisions and a jury trial, have not prevailed against any defendant—they sued Trammell, the state, and the judge’s clerk and bailiff, as well as the county—on any of their claims.
In an unpublished opinion Thursday, Div. One upheld the county’s position that Trammell was not an employee, agent, or servant of the county. Orange Superior Court Judge David Brickner also ruled that the county could not be held liable for negligent supervision, because judges cannot be “supervised” as a matter of law, but the Court of Appeal said there was no need to address that issue.
Trammell quit the bench abruptly in 1997, following disclosure of his involvement with Lo, a defendant in a case before him. Lo was placed on five years probation after pleading guilty to lesser charges in a case where her husband and a babysitter were charged with kidnapping.
Lo claimed she was coerced into sex with the judge. Trammell told her she had to “pay the price” if she wanted favorable treatment for her husband as the case continued after her plea, she said.
An Orange Superior Court judge ruled that Trammel’s actions had tainted the case against Lo’s husband and babysitter. Their convictions were thrown out on a writ of habeas corpus, and they were allowed to plead guilty to reduced charges.
The Commission on Judicial Performance found there was insufficient evidence Lo was coerced, but ruled that Trammell violated judicial ethics by continuing to have contact with Lo outside court while he was still hearing the case and was responsible for overseeing her probation. He was censured and barred from performing court-appointed work.
He later admitted to related mail fraud charges in federal court and was sentenced to 27 months in prison, which he served at a facility in Beaumont, Texas.
His years on the bench—he served on the Los Angeles Municipal Court from 1971 to 1988 and on the Superior Court from 1988 to 1997—would normally entitle him to a pension, which would now be about $100,000 annually, but state law bars a judge who is convicted of a felony related to judicial service from receiving retirement benefits.
He was the Municipal Court’s presiding judge from June 1986 through December 1987, and was sitting as a trial judge in Pomona when he quit the bench.
In the civil cases, Brickner’s pretrial rulings eliminated all defendants other than Trammell and the state. The judge bifurcated the trial, allowing the claims against the state to go to trial first.
The state was exonerated. Jurors told reporters after the verdict came in that they felt Lo had not been coerced, but rather that she and her husband had used Trammell to their own advantage.
Lo’s attorneys, who could not be reached for comment Friday, said at the time that they would not pursue a separate trial on their claims against Trammell because he appeared to have “judgment-proofed” himself by moving to the “debtor’s paradise” of Florida after leaving the bench.
The allegations by Lo’s husband and children were thrown out last year by the Court of Appeal, which held that they were akin to “alienation of affection” claims, which have been abolished in California.
In the case against the county, Lo’s attorneys agreed that under trial court unification, judges are exclusively state employees. But they argued that at the time of Trammell’s involvement with Lo, the county was a co-employer because it shared financial responsibility for the courts, conducted judicial elections, and was responsible for enacting ordinances governing some aspects of court operations.
Justice Reuben Ortega, writing for the Court of Appeal last week, disagreed.
Case law, he noted, makes it clear that the state was, at all relevant times, the primary employer of its judges. For another unit of government to be a co-employer of a state worker, Ortega explained, it must have control over the person’s official conduct.
The state surrendered no control over judges to the county, the justice said.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company