LAPD Officer Wins $2.8 Million In Retaliation Suit

Pedro Torres and Robert Hill were officers assigned to the Los Angeles Police Department’s Newton Division. They frequently heard their immediate supervisor, Sergeant Gil Curtis, use derogatory terms and make disparaging comments in reference to African-Americans and Hispanics. On one occasion Curtis referred to Torres in his presence as “a lazy Mexican.”

In March 2005, Hill initiated a misconduct complaint against Curtis with the Department’s Internal Affairs Division accusing Curtis of making racist remarks toward other officers. Months later, he filed a complaint concerning Curtis’s racist remarks with the State of California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Torres corroborated Hill’s allegations in interviews with IAD investigators and others.

Prior to Torres’s involvement in Hill’s complaint against Curtis, Torres himself had been the subject of an FBI and IAD investigation to determine whether he had any illicit involvement with a murder suspect named George Torres. Torres admitted he knew George Torres and believed that he had contacts in city government through which he was able to obtain confidential information.

During that investigation Torres was asked what he knew about two gang members, “Ra-Ra” and “Nacho.” Torres told the interviewer that a friend of his had introduced him to Ra-Ra in a bar four years earlier and that he knew that Ra-Ra was a “shot caller” with the Ghetto Boys gang. Torres further stated that he had never met Nacho and didn’t know what he looked like but that he had information that Nacho and Ra-Ra were friends and both were acquainted with George Torres. (Torres’s interview was surreptitiously recorded by the IAD investigator.) Finding no evidence that Torres was involved in any criminal activity, the FBI and the IAD closed their criminal investigations of Torres.

In March 2006, a month after Torres testified in support of the charges of racism against Curtis, the IAD launched an administrative investigation of Torres to determine whether he had made false or misleading statements to the officers conducting the criminal investigation, particularly with respect to what he knew about Ra-Ra and Nacho. The IAD captain who ordered the administrative investigation was a good friend of a captain who was a close friend of Curtis. LAPD also investigated Torres for potential sick leave abuse and improper tactics in a shooting incident.

Eventually, Torres received a call from a detective ordering him to appear at the City Attorney’s office for an interview regarding Hill’s accusations against Curtis. The detective told Torres: “We want to know which side you’re on.” A month later, LAPD ordered Torres to surrender his gun and badge and suspended him without pay pending the Board of Rights hearing. As part of the Board of Rights process, LAPD gave Torres a transcript of his original interview with the IAD officer inquiring into his knowledge about George Torres, Ra-Ra and Nacho. Torres thus learned that his identity and his statements to the IAD about George Torres had been recorded and may have been turned over to the attorney for a man accused of five murders who had a pending federal criminal trial.

Torres requested that the Department either return his firearm, issue him a concealed weapon permit or station officers near his home. The request went to the same captain who had initiated the Board of Rights hearing to terminate Torres. The captain acknowledged that George Torres’s lawyer could have shown the interview to George Torres and, if so, it was reasonable for Torres to be concerned about his safety and that of his family. The captain nevertheless concluded that “there was not much credibility” to the threat. Torres’s request for protection was forwarded to a deputy chief who denied it without explanation.

Beginning in March 2008, when the Department relieved Torres of duty and sent him home without pay, Torres began experiencing symptoms resembling a heart attack, extreme surges of adrenaline, difficulty sleeping, and rectal bleeding. In August 2008, the Board of Rights ruled unanimously that the allegations against Torres were “out of statute,” meaning the Department had exceeded the one-year limit in which to investigate an administrative complaint. The Board dismissed the charges against Torres.

Torres never returned to work, and his symptoms increased to the point where he was diagnosed as being unfit for duty. Torres sued the City, alleging his superiors retaliated against him and caused his constructive discharge because he engaged in the protected activity of supporting Hill’s complaints against Curtis. In a special verdict, the jury agreed with Torres’s contentions and awarded him $211,021 for past economic loss, $1,670,997 for future economic loss, and $1,000,000 for past and future non-economic loss.

The California Court of Appeals rejected the City’s attempt to overturn the jury’s verdict. The Court noted that “the City does not dispute that Torres engaged in protected activity when he testified in support of Hill’s administrative and judicial complaints about Curtis’s racially derogatory remarks. Nor does the City deny that it subjected Torres to adverse employment actions when it suspended him for five days without pay as punishment for the shooting incident, relieved him from duty without pay and suspended his authority to carry a gun and a badge pending the Board of Rights hearing and denied him and his family protection from murder suspect George Torres. Finally, the City does not dispute that a constructive discharge is an adverse employment action.

“The City argues that the evidence does not support the jury’s finding of constructive discharge because there is nothing intolerable or aggravated about investigating and disciplining employees; this is a normal part of any business. The City’s argument misses the mark. It may well be a normal part of business to investigate and discipline employees, but when these actions are as persistent and the causes as dubious as in this case, the jury could reasonably find the work situation intolerable. Here, the Department subjected Torres to a series of investigations and disciplinary actions of questionable merit all of which occurred after Torres testified in support of Hill’s charges of racism against Curtis. Moreover, the evidence showed that the way Torres was treated while awaiting his Board of Rights hearing differed significantly from the treatment of another Newton Division officer who was also recommended for a Board of Rights hearing but who did not support the racial discrimination charges against Curtis.

“Torres was stripped of his badge and his gun and sent home for five months to await his hearing. The other officer was never sent to the Board of Rights and instead was given a 10-day suspension that he never served. Moreover, Torres’s superiors were blatant about their attempt to establish grounds to fire him because of his support of charges against Curtis. Investigators conducting proceedings involving Torres were told to ‘make the complaint stick’ and to ‘make [the] shooting out of policy.’ One detective told Torres, referring to the charges against Curtis, ‘We want to know which side you’re on.’

“Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict, there is substantial evidence to support the jury’s finding that Torres reasonably believed the pattern of harassment by the Department’s management would continue.”

Torres v. City of Los Angeles, 2014 WL 4235967 (Cal. App. 2014).