By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A former Santa Rosa police captain whose four-year wrongful termination suit so far has cost the city nearly $1 million has won a round in federal court.
A U.S. District Court judge in 2010 dismissed Jamie Mitchel’s lawsuit against the city and ordered him to pay $32,000 toward the city’s legal bills.
But Mitchel appealed that decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. Last week, a three-judge panel ruled partially in his favor, sending the case back for further hearings.
Mitchel called it “refreshing” to have a decision break his way after so many years of legal setbacks.
“This is a clear win for me. This is huge,” Mitchel said.
Mitchel, 57, was fired in May 2008 during a tumultuous period for the Police Department. Several employees filed complaints with the city alleging gender discrimination, harassment and retaliation by then-police Chief Ed Flint. All four complaints named Flint and two named Mitchel, Flint’s second-in-command.
The city paid the six complainants a total of more than $120,000 to resolve their grievances. Flint was forced out and given $97,000 in severance. He is now the police chief of Atherton. Mitchel was fired and has said the only thing he got from the city was “a kick in the butt.” He hasn’t worked in law enforcement since.
In his suit, Mitchel claimed he was improperly dismissed, his privacy rights were violated, he was discriminated against because he is a white man and that his arbitration hearing was improperly handled.
In its ruling, the 9th Circuit rejected most of Mitchel’s arguments, but was sympathetic to others.
It found that the District Court Judge Susan Illston improperly ordered Mitchel to pay some of the city’s costs. It also found the lower court erred when it rejected two other claims: that he was denied access to key city documents before arbitration, and that the arbitration panel refused to consider whether rights afforded to him as a public safety officer were violated.
City Attorney Caroline Fowler was on vacation Tuesday and could not be reached for comment. In court filings, the city has previously characterized Mitchel’s lawsuit as “meritless” and “absurd.”
Of the findings, Mitchel said he is most heartened by the ruling regarding his access to city documents, which he claims will prove he was unfairly ousted.
“They don’t want the fact out that I was the scapegoat,” Mitchel said.
Mitchel, who said he is “near bankruptcy” because of the case, works part time at a continuation school in Healdsburg. He receives retirement from the County of Sacramento, where worked in the Sheriff’s Department before he was recruited in 2005 by Flint.
He declined to say how much he has spent on the case to date, but two years ago acknowledged legal bills of nearly $400,000.
Mitchel said he doesn’t expect to be allowed to get his old job back, but would take it back “in a heartbeat” if he could. In the meantime, he said, he’ll press on with his case because he knows he did nothing wrong.
“I will not go away,” he said.