The sordid story of sexual harassment, wiretapping, whistleblowing and retaliation in the West Hollywood City Council that came to be known as “Deputygate” might be one for the books. If you had trouble following the snarled threads of this case, you aren’t alone. The case of former council deputy Michelle Rex, who sued the city for wrongful termination following what she felt was a retaliatory firing for her role in reporting the sexual harassment of fellow council deputy, Ian Owens, came to a close on May 19th. However, the culmination of the case will mean little without detailing the twists and turns that led to it.
West Hollywood‘s controversial city council deputy system
The City Council in West Hollywood created council aide positions in 1985, allowing Council members to hire their own “council deputy”. These deputies were full time employees that answered directly to the Councilman they served, dealing with the concerns of constituents, assisting in drafting legislations, and more. While it is generally agreed that deputies served the community well in many ways, they also developed a reputation for fighting amongst themselves and disobeying some of the council rules.
Spying on Solomon: the suspension of Ian Owens
In January 2015, Ian Owens, deputy of Councilman John Duran, was suspended from his position following an accusation by fellow deputy Fran Solomon that Owens had wiretapped her office to prove that she was making campaign related phone calls. While Owens had kept a log of Solomon’s phone calls that he released to the media – in a spreadsheet intended to be anonymous, but which contained his name – no trace of wiretapping was found. Solomon filed a complaint against Owens, claiming that he and fellow deputy Michelle Rex were part of a “relentless pattern of harassment, bullying and stalking, and attempted intimidation”. The city settled with Solomon for $25,000.
Sex, lies & grindr: Owens charges councilman duran with sexual harassment
While still on suspension, Ian Owens charged his Councilman, John Duran, with sexual harassment, revealing that they initially met and had sex in April 2012 after connecting via the sexual meet-up app, Grindr. Owens was offered the deputy position by Duran in August 2012, who failed to disclose the nature of their initial meeting to human resources. Fellow deputy Michelle Rex was deposed for Owens lawsuit, where she agreed that both she and Owens had been treated in a sexually inappropriate way by Duran. Rather than go to trial, the city’s insurance carrier gave Owens a $500,000 payout.
The downfall of the deputy system
After media reports following these events revealed the six-figure salaries being earned by the council deputies, there was a public outcry. The council voted 4-1 to eliminate the deputy positions. At this time, only two full time deputies were still officially employed – Ian Owens and Michelle Rex. They received layoff notices, after which Michelle Rex was unable to apply for other open positions in City Hall, in spite of her years of positive performance reviews and love of the job.
The unfortunate outcome for Michelle Rex
After her layoff, Rex sued the city for $3 million, claiming that it was the retaliatory result of her role in Owens sexual harassment case, during which she confirmed the sexual misconduct of Duran. Her testimony also claimed that she was suffering from the humiliation of her abrupt layoff and her inability to seek further employment. After ten days, the jury ruled that while the city’s conduct was “a substantial motivating factor in harming Michelle Rex”, they also ruled that her termination could not be considered retaliation due to the fact that the city planned to eliminate the deputy system regardless. Michelle Rex received no payout.
If you feel that you have been the victim of retaliation for reporting an act of wrongdoing or misconduct, it is important that you seek experienced legal counsel immediately. Hennig Ruiz can help – we offer free case evaluations and we want to hear your side of the story.