Elizabeth Riel

CITY HALL — The resident who was hired for and then denied a top city position is dismissing her lawsuit against the city manager, for now.

Elizabeth Riel is still suing City Hall, alleging that they violated her First Amendment rights when they rescinded her job offer, but she recently filed a notice to drop City Manager Rod Gould from the lawsuit in order to expedite the process, Riel’s attorney said in a release Wednesday.

In September, a judge denied Gould’s and City Hall’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Both Gould and City Hall filed motions to appeal the judge’s denial.

Riel’s attorney, Steven J. Kaplan, said in a release that City Hall is taking “advantage of loopholes and engaged in legal maneuvers to stall the case for at least a year.”

As an individual, Kaplan said, Gould had special rights to appeal the denial.

“The City’s appeal rides Mr. Gould’s coattails and unnecessarily delays progress toward trial,” Kaplan said in the release.

As a result, Kaplan said, they are dropping Gould from the suit “subject to filing suit against him again at some future date.”

City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said that the appeal was taken in good faith.

“Both outside counsel and this office carefully reviewed and assessed the ruling on the Motion to Dismiss,” she said in an e-mail. “Based on our review, we formed the opinion that the District Court Judge erred in the ruling; and we advised the Council accordingly. Council considered our advice and opted to proceed with an appeal.”

In 2006, Riel contributed money to a campaign that was running attack advertisements against now-Mayor Pam O’Connor, who was seeking reelection at the time. Riel also penned a column that appeared in the Daily Press, which was critical of decisions made by city officials.

In May, City Hall announced that it had hired Riel to its new Communications and Public Affairs Officer position, which would have involved communicating with the media.

In June, Gould rescinded that offer for “personnel reasons” that, at the time, he would not discuss.

O’Connor told the Daily Press in June that she “might have commented” to Gould about her discomfort with the hiring of Riel. She went on to explain that she can’t tell the city manager what to do.

Riel filed a lawsuit against City Hall and Gould claiming that her First Amendment rights had been violated. Gould, the lawsuit said, told her that her past political involvement was the reason for her firing.

In City Hall’s motion to dismiss the suit, they said, among many other things, that Riel’s 2006 political activities would have “directly impaired her ability to function in the office and would have interfered with her professional relationships with the City’s leadership.”

Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell found none of City Hall’s arguments compelling enough to dismiss the case.

“Because (City Hall and Gould) offer no justification for (Riel’s) termination independent from her protected speech,” she said, “the Court finds (City Hall and Gould) fail to satisfy their burden. Accordingly, the Court finds (Riel) sets forth valid claims for First Amendment retaliation against both the City and Gould.”

Kaplan provided the Daily Press with O’Connell’s 19-page decision.

“After reviewing the cases cited by (Riel),” reads one section of the decision, “the Court finds that a reasonable person would … understand (Riel’s) termination was unconstitutional.”

O’Connell goes on to say that the court recognizes City Hall’s interest in “avoiding disruption and maintaining cooperation” may be stronger — given the job requirements of the Communications and Public Affairs Officer — than in the precedents provided in the decision.

Still, the decision said, the “threat of discord” between Riel and city officials does not outweigh the former’s First Amendment rights. Riel’s 2006 political activities, the decision says, don’t amount to “mere criticism” of City Hall or elected officials’ visions or policies.

“Rather,” the judge said, “(Riel’s) speech sought to expose the public to potentially illegal activities.”

The appeal of O’Connell’s decision, by Gould and City Hall, was filed with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“It is deeply disappointing that the City has chosen to pursue the filing of a frivolous, unmeritorious appeal and waste the Ninth Circuit’s valuable time and limited resources, especially when the District Judge issued a very strong decision,” Kaplan said of the appeals. “This is nothing more than a maneuver to unfairly delay moving forward with the case and to distract attention from the merits of the case and the truth of what happened.”

Gould announced in August that he will retire early next year.

dave@www.smdp.com

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