Tuesday, April 17, 2012

(Stanislaus County) Judge dismisses Patterson councilwoman's lawsuit

By Patty Guerra - Modesto Bee
A federal judge has dismissed Patterson City Councilwoman Annette Smith's lawsuit against Stanislaus County over treatment she received at the hands of the 2011 civil grand jury.

In the order issued Friday, Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill found that Smith's amended complaint "contains several fatal flaws."

In the report issued in June, grand jurors said Smith should lose her seat for failing to disclose a financial relationship with a developer and voting to give him $27,000 without justification, among other alleged offenses.

The report says Smith, Councilman Dominic Farinha and then-Mayor Becky Campo illegally ousted then-City Manager Cleve Morris. And grand jurors said Farinha misused his position on the council over a planned city inspection of his business and tried to use city staff in an effort to collect delinquent rent, and Campo kept her seat after moving out of town.

Smith said the grand jury unfairly targeted her and overstepped its bounds with the blessing of county officials. She sought damages, as well as "injunctive relief prohibiting any further abuses of authority."

County Counsel John Doering said Monday the decision "validates the county's position that the lawsuit was frivolous and lacked any merit."

Neither Smith nor her attorney, Michael Babitzke of Stockton, could be reached for comment Monday, but earlier Smith said her highly unusual tactic was aimed at an overhaul of the local grand jury system, saying grand jurors were "insulting, they were biased, they were predetermined."

Doering said staff will discuss the lawsuit with the Board of Supervisors in closed session tonight, and a decision could be made then whether to pursue repayment of attorney's fees from Smith.

"The county historically and commonly pursues legal costs when a lawsuit has been frivolous and continued to be pursued frivolously," he said. "That's the way we think this case is."

He could not immediately provide an estimate of how much the county has spent on the case.

"Hopefully, this will end the lawsuit and no more taxpayer money will be spent defending the lawsuit," Doering said.

O'Neill earlier had sided with the county with a preliminary ruling in February but allowed Smith to file an amended complaint with more information. She filed it April 2.

O'Neill agreed with the county's assertion that Smith failed to show that any county employee had violated her civil rights. Smith maintained in her amended complaint that "the grand jury allegation was the official policy of the County of Stanislaus by employees of the County of Stanislaus and under direction and control of persons in charge of the legal department and political departments of the County of Stanislaus."

O'Neill said the grand jury is an arm of the Superior Court, not the county, and as such is constitutionally protected from litigation. This time, he did not offer her the opportunity to amend her complaint.

"Ms. Smith's complaints are based on the actions of the grand jury," he wrote. "As described herein, however, the grand jury enjoys 11th Amendemnt immunity from suit."

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