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Lawyers in a wrongful termination lawsuit by former San Diego city prosecutor Marlea Dell’Anno made their closing arguments Wednesday, ending a nearly six-week trial in which dozens of witnesses testified to help tease out the true reason Dell’Anno was fired in 2015.
Lawyers for Dell’Anno told jurors that Goldsmith fired Dell’Anno not because of poor performance, but because she had angered Goldsmith by refusing to take actions she considered unethical and motivated by Goldsmith’s political interests. They said she had refused Goldsmith’s direction to file charges in two cases for which there was insufficient evidence and she had declined Goldsmith’s request to change employee evaluations in ways that would have been unlawful.
Lawyers for the city and Goldsmith argued before the jury that Dell’Anno had been fired because parts of the criminal division she oversaw were dysfunctional, attorneys she managed were complaining about mistreatment, and she took home case files that had been left behind in a subordinate attorney’s office without telling Goldsmith.
Josh Gruenberg, a San Diego-based attorney representing Dell’Anno, said in his closing argument that the city and Goldsmith blew out of proportion the failures in processing and handling of files. He said Goldsmith worked to gather complaints about Dell’Anno to stain her good reputation and build a case to fire her.
“This is an important case because it’s a story and a case about a good woman whose world was turned upside down because she was trying to do the right thing,” Gruenberg said. “She was standing up for what she believed in. She was standing up for her prosecutorial ethics when she was retaliated against, and then a picture was painted of her that was not accurate.”
Mark Meyerhoff, an attorney representing the city, said in his closing arguments that Goldsmith fired Dell’Anno because of complaints about her leadership, favoritism and retaliation against deputies . Goldsmith first re-assigned Dell’Anno to a job in which she did not supervise others. When he learned about the mishandled files, Goldsmith fired her.
“We submit to you that we don’t believe Ms. Dell’Anno is entitled to any damages here,” Meyerhoff said. “Her termination was legitimate; her termination was not retaliatory. Her termination was the City Attorney’s Office and Mr. Goldsmith utilizing good-faith, legitimate reasons to terminate her.”
The final arguments were the last chance attorneys had to frame about five weeks of often-conflicting testimony by dozens of witnesses to support their respective narratives. Dell’Anno is seeking about $3.7 million in damages.
Seven former co-workers of Dell’Anno who testified for the defense last week blamed Dell’Anno for managerial decisions that led to a dysfunctional workplace and prompted their complaints. On cross-examination the witnesses all acknowledged they did not actually know that Dell’Anno — and not Goldsmith — made the decisions they attributed to her.
According to witnesses testimony, in 2014 and 2015 the City Attorney’s Office was plagued by conflict, including disagreements sometimes ending in tears, meetings that devolved into yelling matches, and some attorneys quitting. Workflow broke down. Colleagues secretly took notes on each other’s conduct and composed lengthy memos — one of them about 25 pages — detailing their complaints. Witnesses said Dell’Anno and a fellow city prosecutor, Mark Skeels, had a personal relationship for a time, and his appointment as a chief deputy answering to Dell’Anno fueled resentment and suspicion of favoritism among colleagues.
Dell’Anno denied favoring Skeels, saying Goldsmith told her to make him a chief deputy. Goldsmith denied giving her that directive.
“It was a very hostile work environment,” testified Han Hershman, a deputy city attorney who still works at the office.
Deputy prosecutors in the criminal division testified that they did not believe themselves to be among Dell’Anno’s “favored” employees. They accused her of targeting them and trying to drive them out of the office with unfair, negative performance reviews and seemingly punitive rotations to lower-level jobs for which they were poorly suited or lacked experience.
“There was a divide in the office between those that were on (Dell’Anno’s) team and then the rest of us,” said 17-year veteran city prosecutor Shelley Webb.
But when pressed on cross-examination about how the witnesses knew Dell’Anno had made the employment decisions in question, all the witnesses acknowledged that they didn’t actually know. Most said they assumed Dell’Anno was responsible or had heard gossip. They all acknowledged Goldsmith ultimately had the final word on assignments and personnel decisions.
Goldsmith told that to Tanya Tomlinson, deputy director of Human Resources for the office, according to Tomlinson’s testimony.
She recalled she and Goldsmith got into a disagreement about how to handle a personnel decision.
“He was very firm with me … and told me, ‘I’m the City Attorney and I make the final decision’,” Tomlinson said. After their meeting, she said she told a coworker about the incident and wept.
Goldsmith testified this week that he was rarely involved in the day-to-day operations of the criminal division, including assignments. He acknowledged that he had sent an email to Dell’Anno in which he “requested” she begin moving prosecutors in the Neighborhood Prosecution Unit to jobs in the trial unit. At least one prosecutor who was moved to trials testified that she believed Dell’Anno had chosen the new assignment, possibly because the prosecutor had angered Dell’Anno by questioning her judgment.
Witness after witness described Dell’Anno “yelling” at colleagues when they challenged her or failed to do things the way she wanted them done.
Goldsmith’s administrative assistant, Carmen Sandoval, testified that Dell’Anno, Skeels and another attorney once got into a yelling match behind closed doors that was so loud she could hear them through the walls.
Dell’Anno was apparently getting “yelled at” by her boss, Goldsmith, too, one witness’ testimony suggested.
Webb said Dell’Anno once called her accidentally amid some tense confusion over who was handling an important brief that was up against its filing deadline.
When Webb answered, she could hear Dell’Anno shouting at someone who sounded like Skeels, ‘“What do you want me to do about Jan (Goldsmith) yelling at me about this?”’
Webb said she quickly realized the call was unintentional and hung up.
Some of the former city prosecutors who testified this week said they ultimately left their jobs — which they said they loved and considered part of their identity — because they felt they could not advance in their careers or even do their work effectively under Dell’Anno’s leadership.
The jury went out Wednesday afternoon to deliberate and decide on a verdict.
Source: This post first appeared on sandiegouniontribune.com