A judge upheld an $8.1 million jury award Tuesday for a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy who said he was subjected to harassing conduct and retaliation for questioning the accuracy of his trainers' police reports and their reasons for making some traffic stops.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Susan Bryant-Deason denied motions by lawyers for the county for a new trial or a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Part of the defense's argument in support of both motions rested on their claims that the jury was not properly instructed before rendering its Oct. 4 verdict in favor of 37-year-old Andrew Rodriguez.
Rodriguez testified that his first two trainers at the Industry station, Joanne Arcos and Timmy Nakamura, engaged in what he believed were unconstitutional stops and detentions of potential suspects that could have led to both him and the trainers going to federal prison.
Attorney Mira Hashmall, arguing on behalf of the county, said the lack of evidence at trial supporting Rodriguez's claims for hostile work environment and retaliation was exacerbated when the jury instructions and verdict form both failed to delineate what protected status the deputy had and what protected conduct he engaged in.
"The award is so disproportionate as to what the evidence showed," Hashmall told the judge. "I do feel there was a miscarriage of justice."
But the judge disagreed.
"There was substantial evidence to support the verdict," she said.
Get Los Angeles's latest local news on crime, entertainment, weather, schools, COVID, cost of living and more. Here's your go-to source for today's LA news.
Bryant-Deason also said she did not believe the jury was confused or that the damage award was excessive.
Rodriguez, who filed his lawsuit in October 2017, was assigned as a trainee at the Industry station in December 2013 after earlier stints in the county jails and as a bailiff in Compton Superior Court and the Edelman Children's Court in Monterey Park.
Current Undersheriff Timothy Murakami was a captain and the head of the Industry station when Rodriguez was a trainee there.
Rodriguez testified that Arcos told him to falsely state in a report that a methamphetamine pipe found after a suspect's SUV was stopped was recovered from the motorist's clothing when it was actually found in the vehicle's console.
Rodriguez said that when he asked Arcos for her legal justification in stopping the motorist, she refused to answer. He said he also saw her make questionable searches of trunks of vehicles during traffic stops that appeared to conflict with the legal grounds to do so that he had learned at the sheriff's academy.
Both Arcos and Nakamura denied any wrongdoing.
Rodriguez claimed Murakami told him in August and September 2014 that he would "find something" to get the plaintiff fired.
Rodriguez is currently an unpaid, inactive member of the department. His attorney, Maria Diaz, said it was her client's dream to work in law enforcement, but that his opportunity is now likely closed because of the lawsuit.
Rodriguez previously said he doubts he can work in policing again because he will be seen as a snitch and any prospective employer will want to hear from some of the very people that he alleges harassed and retaliated against him.
Defense witnesses during trial, including Murakami, testified that Rodriguez did not speak out about alleged wrongful conduct by his trainers at the Industry sheriff's station until after he filed his lawsuit.
Murakami also said that Rodriguez once left a female deputy stranded without transportation during a meal break and later said he didn't recall the incident when questioned about it.
The undersheriff further disputed Rodriguez's testimony that working at the Industry station gave him a better opportunity at career advancement than at other stations where there are fewer calls for service, such as the Walnut/Diamond Bar station, where he turned down an offer for a transfer.