The decision by Costa Mesa's mayor, his wife and another councilman to sue the city's police association and its former law firm for harassment, intimidation, libel and other alleged damages is a highly unusual step and possibly unprecedented for a sitting elected official, legal and labor experts said Wednesday.
"As far as I know, I've never seen it," UC Irvine School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky said. "It's very unusual, definitely."
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Orange County Superior Court, alleges a conspiracy against Mayor Jim Righeimer, his wife, Lene, and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger.
The three accuse Upland-based law firm Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir; Chris Lanzillo, a Menifee private investigator; and the Costa Mesa Police Officers' Assn. of harassment and defamation in the pursuit of political gain.
The lawsuit stems from an Aug. 22, 2012, incident in which a 911 caller, later identified as Lanzillo, followed then-Mayor Pro Tem Righeimer from a fellow councilman's bar to Righeimer's Mesa Verde home. Lanzillo reported that the motorist was driving erratically.
The call spurred a responding officer to conduct a field sobriety test for Righeimer at his home, while his children watched, according to the lawsuit.
Lene Righeimer approached Lanzillo, who was inside his parked car nearby, watching events unfold.
Righeimer quickly passed the sobriety test and later publicly produced a receipt for what he ordered that night: two Diet Cokes.
The mayor and his supporters have spearheaded a multiyear push to reduce public-employee compensation and reign in taxpayer spending.
Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, said he couldn't comment on the merit of the lawsuit itself, but from afar, "This looks like an ugly public dispute that is being fought on different arenas. So not only do they have this lawsuit regarding the police and unions, but now there's this so-called transparency policy that the City Council unilaterally imposed. There's just a lot of contention that is being fought on multiple fronts between the City Council and the employee unions."
Like Chemerinsky, Wong called the scenario unusual: "I have never heard of this type of lawsuit directed by an individual of a city council directed against an employee union."
Usually, such cases are more along the lines of unfair labor practice allegations, unilateral actions and contract disputes, he said.
Added Chemerinsky: "My instinct is this is obviously a nasty negotiation between the mayor and the police union ... was this just a nasty negotiation or did it really violate the law and create a civil cause of action in some way?"
A lot of "tense negotiations cause emotional distress," he said. "I think the most troubling thing here, from a legal perspective, is calling a false complaint on somebody."
Wong called the case a "highly personal" one.
"Those types of things do make headlines," he said. "I remember reading about it from afar, but the fact that a year later now there's a lawsuit and it's going on at the same type as the [dispute with the Costa Mesa City Employees Assn.] … it's just an example of how antagonistic and contentious this relationship is."
Righeimer and Mensinger make it clear in their lawsuit that their claim isn't directed at individual Police Department employees.
The lawsuit's opening statement says it is "neither about nor against the general rank-and-file police officers who diligently serve our communities in the face of grave danger, on a daily basis … "
They are paying for the lawsuit with their own money, not the city's.