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Los Altos waits for judicial order as more staff, police seek legal representation

Several Los Altos city employees and police officers await the judge overseeing a racial discrimination lawsuit filed against them last year to give her written order on next steps.

Fulvio Cajina, the counsel for Satish Ramachandran – the Los Altos resident seeking damages – and Scott Ditfurth, the lead attorney on retainer for the city, stood before Magistrate Judge Virginia DeMarchi in her San Jose courtroom Jan. 22 and pleaded their cases on four alleged claims. The court appearance followed a failed mediation meeting Jan. 16, at which the defendants requested dismissal of the motion.

In the first amended complaint Cajina filed on behalf of Ramachandran in July, he added more defendants to the lawsuit. The suit now not only targets the city and Kirk Ballard, Greg Anderson and David Kornfield of the Community Development Department, but also Community Development associates Zach Dahl, Garrett Jones and Jon Biggs; 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.

Ramachandran’s suit, filed February 2018, claims that city employees have treated him differently than Caucasian residents since 2013.

After living in Los Altos for 10 years without incident, Ramachandran said everything changed when he interacted with the Community Development Department, whose members mistreated him due to his “thick Indian accent.” The Santa Rita Avenue resident alleges that Anderson became upset with him when he explained that Ballard and Kornfield told him he did not need a permit to remodel his patio, and that Anderson asked him why he lived here and told him to “go back to India.”

Although Ramachandran filed a formal complaint with the city about Anderson’s alleged behavior, he said no one contacted him and Anderson was never disciplined.

Allegations, escalation

The lawsuit also claims:

• After the department approved Ramachandran’s plans in 2015, his Caucasian neighbor received clearance to tear down their joint fence and move it onto Ramachandran’s property line to remodel a storage shed. The clearance is against Los Altos’ building code, which requires minimal setbacks and square footage.

• In summer 2017, Kornfield told Ramachandran the decision could not be appealed. Ramachandran called the Los Altos Police Department and was informed the neighbor could not enter his property or move the fence without a court order. Such action, if taken, would fall under trespassing and property damage, Ramachandran said he was told.

• When the neighbor began to tear down the fence, Ramachandran called the police. Bardwell was the first to arrive, telling Ramachandran that he would not stop the fence removal and that a court order was not necessary. Bardwell ordered Ramachandran not to interfere with the activity; Spillman arrived and said the same.

• Shortly after, Ramachandran, who was protesting the fence removal from his side of the property line, said his neighbor pushed him, knocking him against rebar posts. The incident was caught on video. Spillman returned to the scene and told Ramachandran he did not believe his account of the physical altercation because Ramachandran had “no credibility.” After examining the video, Spillman still dismissed Ramachandran’s claim and said the District Attorney’s Office would also dismiss it. The neighbor was not arrested for battery, but Ramachandran was told he could be arrested for interfering with the property changes.

• Two days later, Ramachandran said he suffered so badly from the physical incident that he went to the hospital. Two days after that, Vernon called and was given a copy of the medical record. Ramachandran said that in Vernon’s report to the DA’s Office, she deliberately omitted proof of his hospital visit and “skewed the facts in favor of (the neighbor).”

• It was around this time that Ramachandran said he discovered the city had a history of treating minorities differently, making his experiences less than isolated. No specific incidences are referenced in the complaint.

• After filing two government tort complaints, which hold an agency accountable for alleged negligence, Ramachandran said Dahl and Biggs proposed that the Los Altos City Council eliminate setback and lot-size requirements for accessory structures. Jordan and Mordo joined forces to help change the building code to “cover the arbitrary/discriminatory decision making process with (Ramachandran).”

Legal concerns

At the Jan. 22 hearing, Judge DeMarchi voiced concerns about the legal arguments of both parties.

In Ditfurth’s opposition to Ramachandran’s revised complaint, he said the incidents as described are not deemed “outrageous conduct” as defined by law.

“If I take all of the alleged claims as true, which the court is required to do, it seems to me that Ramachandran has plead instances of discrimination on the basis of race or national origin,” DeMarchi said. “I’m wondering, is it the defendants’ position that discrimination on the basis of race is not outrageous conduct? ... This goes beyond the bounds of public decency.”

Cajina introduced information not listed in the complaint during the hearing, fixating on details from recent discovery such as public documents that reveal police officers went to Ramachandran’s home after he told one of the defendants he did not want him to enter and videotaped the interior with their body cameras to provide to Community Development.

“You’re representing that to me in court, now, without having put any of that stuff in your opposition to the motion dismissed,” DeMarchi said. “And so I expect the defendants’ counsel is hearing about it for the first time that this is your plan. … That is not OK.”

Neither the judge’s media spokesperson nor the plaintiff’s or defendants’ attorneys replied to a request for comment before the Town Crier’s press deadline. However, Los Altos spokeswoman Erica Ray 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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