TORRANCE, Calif. – Inglewood’s city treasurer was ordered Monday to collectively pay the city, the mayor and other defendants nearly $50,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs in the wake of a court ruling trimming some of the claims she brought alleging her salary was cut and that she was locked out of City Hall in retaliation for questioning the handling of the city’s finances.
In March, Torrance Superior Court Judge Deirdre Hill ruled on the city’s motion to dismiss plaintiff Wanda M. Brown’s suit on First Amendment grounds, striking Brown’s cause of action for defamation as well as Brown’s intentional infliction of emotional distress claim to the extent it was based on defamation.
The judge denied the motion as to Brown’s whistleblower retaliation claim and the emotional distress claim to the extent it was based on retaliation.
The defendants then sought attorneys’ fees, which they were entitled to under law. After hearing arguments Monday, Hill directed Brown to pay $41,260 in attorneys’ fees and $8,645 in costs.
The judge noted that in a sworn declaration, defense attorney Mira Hashmall stated that her law firm was selected to handle the dismissal motion “based on our skill and experience” and that the lawyer has long dealt with legal disputes involving governments.
Regarding the Brown suit, Hashmall previously said the city did not retaliate against Brown and has always treated her “in accordance with the regulations and procedures established in the city charter.”
The 79-year-old Brown was first elected in 1987 as Inglewood’s city treasurer and has maintained her post ever since, serving under three different mayors, including current Mayor James Butts.
As part of her job over the years, she has invested more than $400 million in municipal funds and been directly responsible for generating more than $90 million in gross interest investment income for the city, according to the suit filed in August 2021.
In April 2018, the mayor and City Council honored Brown for her 31 years of outstanding service, the suit states. Butts called her the “alpha and omega” of investing city funds and explained how Brown oversaw the decline and resurgence of the city, the suit states.
But in separate memos to Butts and the City Council in November 2019, Brown raised her concerns about the financial health of the city of Inglewood, including the alleged overpayment of $77,420 to a city contractor, Pinner Construction, where for the first time in city history, the mayor had himself appointed as an authorized city representative for payment of bond proceeds, the suit states. She also addressed the city’s declining cash balance and the need to curb excess spending, according to the suit.
“Unfortunately, Ms. Brown’s concerns were completely ignored by Mayor Butts and his council,” the suit states.
Rather than address the financial issues with Brown, Butts denied any overpayment to the subject contractor and accused Brown of giving misleading financial information, the suit states.
“The mayor and council then set about to silence and punish Ms. Brown by systematically reducing her job duties and ability to function as treasurer,” the suit alleges.
The defendants reduced Brown’s salary by 83%, established a new investment committee and did not invite Brown to participate in the committee’s meetings, reduced her once multimillion-dollar investment authority to just $50,000 and denied her access to City Council meetings, the suit states.
The defendants also locked Brown and her staff out of City Hall and their offices and barred her access to the city’s financial records, the suit states.
Speaking during an August 2020 City Council meeting, Butts defamed Brown by saying that because she did not know the procedure for handling bad debts, he had no choice but to reduce her duties and her salary, according to the suit.
In reality, all bad debt identification rests with the Finance Department, not the treasurer, the suit states.
“The bad debt issue was merely subterfuge for (Butts’) real reason for retaliating against Ms. Brown, which was to punish her for publicly voicing her concerns about the negative aspects of the city’s finances and the impropriety of a particular payment by defendant … Butts to one of the city’s contractors,” the suit states.
Butts and the City Council “intentionally engaged in this outrageous conduct with the goal of discrediting, defaming and causing substantial emotional injury and distress to (Brown),” the suit states.