By Charles Lam
Northwest Asian Weekly
A federal judge vacated a $2 million jury decision for former Medina Police Chief Jeffrey Chen on Aug. 23, citing misconduct by his attorney in influencing the jury. Chen sued the city of Medina over his dismissal in April 2011, charging that it had been racially motivated. The city claims it fired him due to misconduct during his time as chief.
“The Court agrees with the plaintiff’s counsel’s premise that discrimination in our current era takes a different form than the racism of yesteryear,” said Federal Judge Thomas S. Zilly in a 44-page opinion. “It is not as obvious and does not necessarily involve the use of racial slurs or other offensive language. It is also more difficult to prove. Nevertheless, proof is still required. In this case, in the Court’s view, plaintiff relied primarily on innuendo and subterfuge rather than on evidence.”
In his opinion, Zilly expressed that he believed Chen’s lawyer introduced evidence to the jury regarding racist statements before codefendant and former Medina City Manager Donna Hanson had arrived, diminishing Hanson’s defense.
The decision extends an already two-and-a-half year long trial that was originally filed in December 2011.
For Jeffrey Chen, it is another step in what has already been an arduous process.
“The judge controlled the courtroom. Kept it between extremely limited boundaries that were, mostly, disadvantageous to me. … He never said a word about my attorney making errors that would be considered misconduct during or right after the trial,” Chen said.
“…Now he says that it was all shocking and a sham and that the jury must have only ruled as they did out of emotion, passion or prejudice.”
This is the first time in his 25-year career that Judge Zilly has granted a retrial, according to his decision.
Both Chen and codefendants Hanson and the city of Medina have 28 days to submit to the court a statement saying when they will be ready for the new trial.
The federal jury originally found on March 26 that the firing was racially motivated, awarding Chen $2 million in total damages. At the time of his release, Chen was the only nonwhite department head in Medina and the only Chinese American police chief in Washington State.
The trial, which started on March 11 and lasted 11 days, dealt with the somewhat bizarre dismissal process, which took place from December 2010 to April 2011. Chen released a public resignation letter in December 2010 and quickly rescinded it less than two weeks later. He then released a seven-page letter to the Medina City Council stating that he quit because City Manager Hanson was forcing him out.
Chen was put on administrative leave following his rescinding, pending the results of an investigation led by private investigator and Bellevue attorney Ellen Lenhart. The investigation eventually found Chen guilty on six counts: dishonesty, abuse of his position as chief, unauthorized removal and/or destruction of public records, improper access of city records, improper access of the city’s email archives, and loss of confidence by subordinate officers.
Several community members took issue with the firing, saying that Chen had served Medina well, reducing crime in the city to nearly nonexistent levels. Medina citizens presented to the city council petitions calling for his reinstatement and for Hanson’s firing. After the original verdict was released, the city was once again divided over whether or not to appeal.
“Throughout the last two years of this matter, we’ve all heard that ‘if you only knew what we knew, you would certainly feel very differently regarding Chief Chen’ from members of the city council. We’ve now had 11 days of trial with a completely impartial group in the federal justice system and what they found is they believed Chief Chen and his witnesses. I think it’s important to listen to that. You have to respect the justice system, that’s why we have it. … If WCIA pays out the judgment, what it says in that document is that our future assessments will recover the amount that they pay out in our behalf. It sounds like we will be paying $500,000 a year for the next five years at least to recover that. For two years, we’ve been trying to get you to pay attention. We could have settled this for $100,000,” said Terry Drayton during an April 2013 Medina City Council meeting.
Donna Hanson left the city manager position in June under a severance agreement. She received $156,745 as pay and $57,976 in other benefits under the agreement.
Four seats on the Medina City Council are up for election in 2013. Of the six candidates vying for them, three — Jennifer Garone, Alex Morcos, and James Girardot — have criticized the city council’s handling of the case.
Faced with another trial, Chen is defiant.
“I haven’t figured out exactly how to have this conversation with my children, to know that they are going to be subjected to another round of unfathomable torture breaks my heart, however, they share my convictions and belief in the American way of justice,” Chen said. “We had our day in court. I told the truth. And a jury of eight randomly selected people reached a unanimous decision in my favor. When I sit down with my children to explain what is going to happen next I’ll remain strong in my conviction that I was targeted, I was wrongfully terminated, and I was discriminated against. I am prepared for another day in court.” (end)
Charles Lam can be reached at Charles@nwasianweekly.com.