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San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott, whose predecessor fired a senior lawyer under questionable circumstances then lost a wrongful-termination lawsuit, is asking a judge to overturn the jury’s verdict — or grant a new trial.

In a series of court filings earlier this month, lawyers for the city of San Diego argued there was insufficient evidence to support the jury’s March 23 decision to award almost $4 million in damages to former Assistant City Attorney Marlea Dell’Anno.

They also said errors committed during the six-week trial wrongly allowed jurors to conclude that former City Attorney Jan Goldsmith had improperly terminated Dell’Anno.

“At trial, the court excluded multiple exhibits offered by the city that were directly relevant to the issue of whether Mr. Goldsmith had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason to reassign or terminate plaintiff,” lawyers for the city wrote.

The City Attorney’s Office declined to comment on its legal strategy.


Dell’Anno was a midcareer prosecutor who rose through the ranks of the City Attorney’s Office to lead the criminal division.

She was fired in 2015 after an internal investigation found that scores of cases had been mishandled, including some allegations against domestic-violence suspects.

Dell’Anno denied the accusations.

She sued the city for wrongful termination, claiming she was fired for declining to pursue criminal charges in two cases, one that she said was politically motivated against a Goldsmith critic and another that did not constitute a crime.

She also said the termination was in retaliation for her refusal to rewrite performance reviews for two lawyers under her supervision.

The case took more than five years to get to trial.

After deliberating over four days, a Superior Court jury found the city liable for $3.9 million in damages. The award included $3.4 million for past and future economic losses and $500,000 for non-economic losses such as emotional pain and suffering.

The city’s liability is growing by the day. Under the rules of civil procedure, a judgment begins accruing interest from the day it is awarded to the day it is paid.

Josh Gruenberg, the San Diego lawyer who represents Dell’Anno, said the city’s lawyers are “throwing good money after bad” by continuing to litigate issues that were decided by the judge and jury.

“I do not believe there is anything appealable about the verdict,” he said. “All of these issues have already been argued by the city and decided by the trial court judge.”

In addition to the $3.9 million in damages awarded to Dell’Anno, the city is likely on the hook for legal fees incurred by the plaintiff during the course of the litigation. Those attorneys’ costs could stretch into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The city also paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to outside law firms to defend Dell’Anno’s wrongful-termination claim. Elliott’s office declined to say how much it spent defending the wrongful-termination claim.

But in September, the City Attorney’s Office requested and received approval from the City Council to boost an existing contract with the Liebert Cassidy Whitmore law firm from $250,000 to $500,000.

According to a staff report prepared by the City Attorney’s Office in September, most of the money paid to Liebert Cassidy Whitmore was for its work on the Dell’Anno case.

“The city encumbered $175,000 to have the law firm begin its work to defend the city in the employment lawsuit brought by former ACA Marlea Dell’Anno,” the report states.

The request for additional funding came after the city fired the firm that had been defending the city in the Dell’Anno case.

The decision to replace Burke Williams Sorensen was made in July, weeks after The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that one of the firm’s lawyers — William Price — was accused in a sworn declaration of threatening a witness to testify in favor of the city.

Price left Burke Williams Sorensen a short time later and now operates his own firm in Carmel Valley.

The witness, another former deputy San Diego city attorney named Mark Skeels, also lost his job at the City Attorney’s Office. He now works for a private law firm downtown.

No hearing date has been set for the city’s request to set aside the jury verdict or grant a new trial.

If the city’s legal motions are not granted, lawyers for the city of San Diego could still take their case to the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Orange County.

Source: This post first appeared on sandiegouniontribune.com

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