Judge may throw out most of sexual harassment lawsuit against Inglewood mayor

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge appears poised to throw out all but one portion of a lawsuit accusing Inglewood and Mayor James T. Butts Jr. of wrongful termination, sexual harassment and retaliation, because the mayor’s former assistant did not file her lawsuit on time.

Judge Richard Burdge Jr. is allowing the attorneys representing Melanie McDade-Dickens, the mayor’s ex-girlfriend and highly paid former assistant, to amend the lawsuit to try to fix its fatal flaws, but if they cannot, his June 28 ruling could effectively eliminate seven of McDade-Dickens’ eight claims in one fell swoop.

In a statement, Mira Hashmall, an attorney representing Inglewood, reiterated the city’s stance that the lawsuit is “baseless.”

“At a recent hearing, the court ruled that nearly all of her claims were untimely or barred under California law,” Hashmall said in a statement. “McDade was given an opportunity to try to amend her lawsuit, but the city believes the defects cannot be fixed and will seek dismissal of her claims at a future hearing.”

McDade-Dickens sued Inglewood and Butts in January 2021, alleging the mayor coerced her into sexual acts while at work, stalked her when she ended their eight-year relationship and then had her fired when she refused to get back together. She further alleges City Manager Artie Fields and Human Resources Director Jose Cortes knew about the harassment and did nothing to stop it.

Carl Douglas, McDade-Dickens’ attorney, said the ruling is a “minor procedural hurdle” that he expects to overcome. He expressed confidence that the amended complaint will address the matter.

“I am not deterred because I know fundamentally what happened in this case,” he said. “I know that none of this is going to matter. She was harassed and wrongfully terminated and that cause of action is always going to survive.”

The mayor “has terrorized female employees for years in city hall,” Douglas said.

“No matter the rulings that may come, this case will proceed to trial on that fundamental issue,” he said.

If the ruling stands, McDade-Dickens would only be able to proceed against the mayor personally for an allegation he “engaged in ‘threats and coercion’ in order to pressure Plaintiff to reengage in a sexual relationship” while he held power over her career, according to the judge’s order.

“This is sufficient to state a claim against the mayor,” but not enough for a claim against the other defendants, Burdge wrote in his order.

In her statement, Hashmall said the remaining cause of action “survives on a technicality.”

“We are confident, however, that this technicality will in no way survive the evidence of the truth of the matter,” she stated.

The judge’s ruling did not address the merits of McDade-Dickens’ allegations, but rather is largely based on procedural deficiencies in the complaint. Burdge determined McDade-Dickens needed to have filed her lawsuit by July 2020 to meet a timeline set by the Fair Employment and Housing Act, or FEHA.

McDade-Dickens’ attorneys argued unsuccessfully that the lawsuit was filed appropriately because California law gives individuals six months to file a lawsuit after a public agency rejects a governmental claim for damages, and Inglewood did not reject her claim until the end of July 2020, according to court records.

However, Burdge ruled that there was no support that a government claim would extend a one-year cutoff set by FEHA. Since the missed deadline would eliminate McDade-Dickens’ ability to sue the city for sexual harassment and retaliation under the act, it would also cascade to shut down other related claims, including an allegation that the city’s administrators knew about the sexual harassment and failed to properly investigate it.

Another allegation in the lawsuit that could be thrown out accused the city of “wrongful constructive termination.” A constructive discharge is when an employer, in an attempt to avoid firing someone, takes action to force the employee to quit instead. Burdge ruled that “constructive termination” is not applicable simply because Inglewood directly fired McDade-Dickens.

In her termination letter, Inglewood’s city manager alleged McDade-Dickens had used city employees to assist with personal matters, including to help her secure a home loan, and had fraudulently replicated a bonus check to make herself appear more financially stable.

McDade-Dickens previously denied the allegations through her attorney.

The website 2UrbanGirls first reported the ruling.

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