Attorney Highsmith Under Scrutiny | Lauren Rubin Settlement is Likely

Attorney Highsmith South Pasadena
FILE PHOTO: Eric Fabbro | News | City Attorney Teresa Highsmith

Court documents indicate there is a settlement in the retaliation lawsuit filed one year ago against the city and two South Pasadena officials by a former Finance Department employee. Meantime, there is movement in the litigation against the city over a sewer leak, while City Attorney Teresa Highsmith has become the subject of a lengthy performance review by the City Council and a citizen complaint filed with the State Bar.

Lauren Rubin, who worked for the city for 13 years, said city officials including ousted City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe, engaged in a cover up, commissioned a “sham” audit and slandered her as part of a plan to replace older Finance Department employees with “younger, less qualified employees.” She alleged retaliation, age discrimination, slander, hostile work environment, emotional distress and others causes of action against DeWolfe and/or former Human Resources Manager Mariam Lee Ko.

The defendants never filed a formal answer to the charges, but twice moved for “demurrer,” a plea in response to an allegation that admits its truth but asserts it is nevertheless an insufficient cause of action.

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A note in the court docket filed by DeWolfe’s attorney earlier this month said the “entire case has been settled,” but that certain “specified terms” must still be performed. It said a final request for dismissal is due no later than April 14, 2021. No information on the terms of the settlement were disclosed.

Wednesday, Rubin’s attorney Vincent Miller, who also represented former South Pasadena police officer Timothy Patrick Green in his successful wrongful termination suit against the city, declined to comment on the pending settlement.

South Pasadena Interim City Manager Sean Joyce told the South Pasadenan News that while “we are optimistic that we can bring this matter to a mutual resolution,” a more definitive statement would have to wait.

Rubin said she learned from a Nov. 2, 2018 newspaper article that she’d been terminated. Her departure came after DeWolfe got Council approval for a reorganization of the Finance Department that came in the aftermath of a business license processing fiasco. Rubin said she tried to head off the problem but that DeWolfe nevertheless publicly blamed her for it, albeit not by name.

DeWolfe’s reorganization failed to stem a growing backlog of bank reconciliation and other work that eventually contributed to serious and ongoing delays in the completion of the annual budget and other important financial work that was eventually called out by watchdogs outside the city, leading to DeWolfe’s early retirement and a raft of audit findings.

Smith Case | Hanscom Drive

The Rubin settlement comes as activity is ratcheting up in another closely watched case pitting South Pasadena resident and SPUSD dance teacher Alison Smith against the city that began with a dispute over which party is responsible for a January 11, 2018 sewer leak at Smith’s home on Hanscom Drive.

After the matter went unresolved for a year, Smith filed her suit. Among other things, she alleges that two months after she made the dispute public during an August, 2019 City Council meeting, the city retaliated by getting a warrant and sending police along with a group of inspectors to conduct a code enforcement survey of her home that turned up dozens of alleged violations.

PHOTO: Ben Tansey | News | Protected by Police, South Pasadena building inspectors confer prior to entering Smith home

The city argues the timing of the inspection was prompted by an anonymous complaint filed after the Council meeting and that police were present because Smith refused a voluntary inspection. It says Smith’s civil rights claim is an illegal “direct attack” on the city’s free speech rights meant to “deplete (its) energy…and drain (its) resources, (and to) penalize and harass the city” simply for performing its statutory enforcement obligations.

Smith’s civil rights claim is accompanied by four affidavits from her, her attorney and former city Council Member Stephen Rossi and his wife Sheila, who variously point to a series of inconsistencies in the city’s procedures and statements; claims that false information was used to support the warrant; statements asserting their belief that former Mayor Marina Khubesrian prompted the inspection; and noting the city’s failure to provide proof of the anonymous complaint; among other points.

The City responded that Smith’s claim “relies solely on improper and inflammatory declarations describing irrelevant facts (and) inadmissible testimony which is hearsay, double hearsay, speculation, inadmissible lay opinion, improper legal conclusions and testimony which is without personal knowledge or foundation.”

Attorney Highsmith has become the subject of a lengthy performance review by the South Pasadena City Council.
PHOTO: Ben Tansey | News | Code enforcement inspection on Hanscom Dr. with police escort.

As with Rubin, the City has pursued a series of successful demurrer motions in the Smith case, resulting in the plaintiff repeatedly being sent back by the judge to perfect her  complaints. This approach, some critics note, increases costs for both sides. But it was unclear Wednesday how much of the cost for the Smith case the city will ultimately bear, and how much it may recover from its insurer.

Hearings and possible ruling on pending motions in Smith’s case are scheduled Jan. 29 and another on Feb. 9 in Judge John J. Kralic’s Burbank courtroom, but such hearings are often postponed.

“We are still at the pleading stage, which annoys me because it has been more than two years,” Council Member Evelyn Zneimer told the South Pasadenan Wednesday. “We are racking up billable hours in the six figures.”

Highsmith Under Scrutiny

Action in both cases comes as opposition to City Attorney Teresa Highsmith has been ramping up. A complaint against her was filed last week with the State Bar Association by citizen Chris Bray, who complained Highsmith has improperly “refused to provide information regarding her legal services, the city’s ongoing litigation, and the city’s legal costs to new members of the South Pasadena City Council.”

The State Bar has assigned the complaint a number and said it will be reviewed by an attorney in its InTake Unit.

The controversy goes back to former Council Member Stephen Rossi’s complaint that Highsmith would not provide him information about legal matters the Council had been briefed on prior to his Sept. 2, 2020 appointment to the City Council. The Council decided to request a formal opinion on the question from the state Attorney General. But Rossi and Highsmith could not agree on the text of a draft. During a tense Council meeting, the two settled on an approach in which each would draft separate letters to be sent together by the City Attorney.

This week, City Manager Joyce told the South Pasadenan that the request to the AG was never sent. “The City Attorney was to wait to send the letter asking for an AG opinion until she received Council Member Rossi’s related letter and then was to send both letters together to the AG’s office, so that it could have the benefit of the question from the two perspectives.” But Rossi never supplied a draft and so nothing was sent, he said.

Rossi failed to win a seat on the Council and three new members have been seated, including Council Member Evelyn Zneimer, who has twice moved to withhold payment of the monthly bills submitted under the city’s open-ended contract with Highsmith’s law firm, Colantuono, Highsmith & Whatley.

Also in recent weeks, the City Council has held two closed sessions to discuss Highsmith’s performance under the contract, including one session that reportedly went on for five hours. Another session on the same topic is slated. Zneimer told the South Pasadenan she has submitted ten separate requests for information from Highsmith and is currently awaiting responses.




Ben Tansey
Ben Tansey is a journalist and author. He grew up in the South Bay and is a graduate of Evergreen State College. He worked in Washington State as a reporter in a rural timber community and for many years as an editor for a Western electric energy policy publication based in Seattle.