Parties agree to push back trial date in discrimination lawsuit against Los Altos

A Los Altos resident who filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the city of Los Altos will get his day in court, but not this year.

Plaintiff Satish Ramachandran and the city’s attorneys last week agreed to push back the five-day jury trial from September to January, according to the Public Access to Court Electronic Records.

The parties attempted mediation first, starting last June, but were unable to reach an agreement after their final session Jan. 16. Six days later, Magistrate Judge Virginia DeMarchi asked both sides to agree on a new schedule of deadlines for discovery, arguments and a pretrial conference.

In his lawsuit, filed in February 2018 and most recently amended last month, Ramachandran alleges that city employees and representatives violated his First and Fourteenth amendment rights, discriminated on the basis of ethnic origin and intentionally inflicted emotional distress. In addition to the city of Los Altos, the suit specifically names employees Zach Dahl, Garrett Jones, Jon Biggs, Kirk Ballard, Greg Anderson and David Kornfield of the Community Development Department; former Los Altos Mayor Jean Mordo; City Manager Chris Jordan; and Los Altos Police Department officers Sgt. Steven Spillman, Sgt. Eric Bardwell and Agent Jessica Vernon. All but Kornfield and Mordo remain city employees.

While Ramachandran’s attorneys cite specific incidents that drove the resident’s belief he was being targeted for his race – such as a home visit July 12, 2013, in which Anderson allegedly showed up unannounced and told him to “go back to India” – Ramachandran alleges in his lawsuit that city employees treated him differently from Caucasian residents due to his “thick accent.”

Prior to describing city staff’s alleged history of abuse and harassment against Ramachandran, the lawsuit provides a breakdown of each demographic that resides in Los Altos to prove that “unlike many parts of the Bay Area, (Los Altos) is not a bastion of diversity.” The U.S. Census does not show a population percentage for Indian-Americans in Los Altos, Ramachandran’s attorney claims.

Recurring miscommunication

A Public Records Act request to the city of Los Altos yielded 456 pages of emails and letters between Ramachandran, his attorney Dean Rossi and city employees. Multiple Stop Work orders issued to Ramachandran regarding projects on his property and responses for approximately 10 public records requests he filed in one year were also included.

Several arguments between Ramachandran and city staff date back to a meeting Ramachandran had with Kornfield and Ballard in March 2013 to discuss renovations to his patio. Ramachandran said he made it clear he wanted to completely renovate the “dilapidated” patio, according to accounts in a few of the 51 emails from Ramachandran to city staff. However, Kornfield and Ballard both replied that Ramachandran must come to them to determine whether permits were necessary to swap out a few mesh panels.

When city officials issued Ramachandran the first Stop Work order in May 2013, it caused his permit fees to rise to twice the original fee, as per the city’s fee schedule (which then-City Manager Marcia Somers claimed to have explained to him previously). He stated in multiple emails that he had not been warned of the increase.

Conflict with neighbors

Ramachandran also specifically named nextdoor neighbors Jim and Pam Jacobs in his lawsuit, an October 2013 building code violation complaint, an August 2017 Government Tort Act claim and numerous other arguments he had via email with staff due to his belief that the Jacobs’ garage was acting as a noncompliant accessory dwelling unit.

According to documentation provided by the city, the Jacobses paid fees to the nearby school districts in 1998 as a prerequisite to securing a building permit for their newly purchased home. The permit was issued the same day with the description of construction, including converting the garage to a living space, building a new garage and expanding the dining room and office. When the Jacobses sought a permit in 2017 to alter what City Manager Jordan reassured Ramachandran was just an accessory structure – their shed – Ramachandran emailed several senior staff members about conflicting property surveys that revealed the possibility of the Jacobs’ property being smaller than the county’s record.

Ramachandran was told by employees such as former Community Development Director James Walgren that the Jacobs’ garage conversion was “pre-existing, and may be an existing nonconforming situation, but we are required by building code to address what is happening today.” By that day, Aug. 15, 2013, Ramachandran faced city inspections and was asked to remove all illegal and nonpermitted work, such as a newly constructed shed.

In emails to staff, Ramachandran claimed he didn’t know that his “fraudulent” first contractor, Adam Conchas, had performed work without the city’s consent. Conchas filed a consumer complaint against Ramachandran with the Contractors State License Board, verified with an agent from the San Francisco office in the records; Ramachandran filed a breach of contract complaint against Conchas with the same board.

As early as two months into their contact with Ramachandran, city officials began keeping record of all interactions with him. Although the majority of records obtained from the city from December 2013 are redacted, one strand remains: Walgren’s request for update from Ballard and Kornfield asking for a “quick-and-dirty summary of contact with (Ramachandran).” Kornfield replied hours later, stating now-associate planner Sean Gallegos had a five-page action log spanning from May 13, 2013, to July 15, 2013.

Escalating complaints

In 2016, Ramachandran grew upset that the review period for his application to remove a tree adjacent to the public right-of-way on his property was extended, because he had hired a crew to come and remove it that weekend, assuming the application would easily be approved.

The day a rejection letter was sent to Ramachandran with the reasoning it “did not meet criteria necessitating the removal of the tree,” Biggs emailed Somers to warn her that she might hear from Ramachandran despite his knowing the permit was denied, “due to (his) tendency to contact (her) when he does not receive an answer to his liking.”

Neither the Jacobses nor representation for Ramachandran could be reached for comment before the Town Crier’s press deadline. Los Altos spokeswoman Erica Ray previously provided a short statement.

“The city of Los Altos and its staff respect the diverse makeup of this community and its residents. We cannot provide further comment at this time, as litigation is pending on this case,” Ray said. “Similarly, we do not provide comment on personnel matters.”

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