Fired Public Works Director Files Lawsuit | South Pasadena

Abbas is seeking nine types of relief, including actual, compensatory, punitive, declaratory, injunctive and legal costs.

PHOTO: Eric Fabbro | News | Shahid Abbas, former South Pasadena Director of Public Works

Former South Pasadena Public Works Director Shahid Abbas has filed a whistleblower claim against the city claiming he was fired late last year after a dispute over a stop sign. Abbas, now Transportation Director at the City of Glendale, Arizona, claims his termination was retaliation for resisting pressure from city leaders to support an all-way stop sign at Oak St. and Meridian Ave., something dozens of neighbors had been demanding for over twenty years. The lawsuit, filed June 10 in State Superior Court for the County of Los Angeles, impugns the actions the current and former interim city managers, and a city council member.

The City’s acts were carried out in a “despicable, oppressive, fraudulent, malicious, deliberate, egregious, and inexcusable manner” designed to “injure and damage plaintiff,” the complaint reads. Abbas is seeking nine types of relief, including actual, compensatory, punitive, declaratory, injunctive and legal costs.

The City, which has yet to file an answer to the complaint, declined to comment. Council members were scheduled to discuss the case during a closed session Aug. 17. City Attorney Andrew Jared said “no final action” was taken.

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Abbas’ complaint begins with studies done by two city consultants–one in May 2020 by W. G. Zimmerman & Associates and a peer review in March 2021 by Interwest Group. Both concluded a stop sign at Oak & Meridian could not be justified under federal and state standards. It states that former interim City Manager Sean Joyce “forced” Abbas to commission a third study and specifically to “use one of his friend’s accounting firms,” Rock E. Miller & Associates. That study said a stop sign could be justified.

During a May 18, 2021 meeting of the city’s Mobility, Infrastructure & Transportation Commission (MTIC), Abbas publicly criticized the thoroughness of Miller’s study, arguing it includes “no data.”

The complaint states Miller told Abbas, “’I did not collect any data. I’ve known your city manager for 30 years and just did a favor for the city manager,’ or words to that effect.”

The MTIC voted 3-to-2 against a stop sign.

Action then moved to the city council’s July 21, 2021 regular meeting. The complaint states that a council member liaison asked Abbas to “draft a report in a way that could get a vote to approve the project.” Abbas “felt very uncomfortable” by this request and elected to “keep his integrity” by writing a “fair and balanced report” that included “an accurate depiction of the consultants’ findings.”

The lawsuit does not name the city council liaison, but the Council’s formal liaison to the MTIC at the time was 3rd District Mayor Pro Tem Jon Primuth. Primuth declined to comment on the litigation.

The suit also alleges City Manager Arminé Chaparyan asked Abbas “to alter the report he had written to recommend the stop sign installation.” Abbas argued “he did not have the expertise” to do so and “felt uncomfortable reporting contrary to traffic safety standards.” The complaint states that Chaparyan changed the report, omitting the recommendations against the stop sign and that her “modified report made false statements, namely, that [Abbas] recommended the project.”

The complaint does not state whether the “modified report” was given to council. The written city staff report for the July 21, 2021 meeting, does include the consultants’ findings and does not mention the views of the public works director, although he is listed as among those who prepared it. In a remote oral presentation, Abbas did not offer his own opinion. But the report is ambiguous; its text states “staff recommends installation” of the stop sign at Oak and Meridian, but the formal recommendation section merely seeks “direction to staff” on whether to install a stop sign there.

After more than 30 minutes of nearly unanimous public comment in support of the stop sign, the council voted 5-to-0 to approve it, winning a rare round of applause from the audience, including members of Save Meridian Avenue for its Residents Together.

After Chaparyan’s intervention in the report, “plaintiff’s work environment changed for the worse,” the complaint states. Chaparyan began to single him out, “finding faults against him in retaliation for rejecting to recommend the stop sign.” She “falsely accused” him of attending social events with a previous city manager and of “treating female council members differently.”

Also about this time, Abbas learned a city contractor “was getting paid for services that he did not perform.” The complaint does not identify the contractor, but states the person was “a close acquaintance” of Chaparyan. In August 2021, shortly after looking into the situation, Abbas said he was assigned a new project that was due to run out of funding by the end of 2021. When he told the council the project would take six months to complete, Chaparyan accused him of “disrespecting her and the council for pushing back against the deadlines.” She prohibited him from making presentations to the council.

In October, Abbas was fired. The suit complains he was given no warnings or write-ups prior to his termination and that the only reason he was given was that the relationship with Chaparyan “was not working.”

He concludes his “termination was retaliation for whistleblowing.”

The complaint notes California’s whistleblower law “prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who engage in protected ‘whistleblowing’ activities when the employee has reasonable cause to believe that the information discloses a violation of state or federal statute.”

But the complaint does not specify what protected action he took or which statute was violated. Abbas has publicly acknowledged that decisions about stop signs are ultimately within the discretion of the city council. Abass’ attorney, Omid Nosrati of Los Angeles, said he was not prepared to respond to questions about the complaint, but indicated more would be revealed as the case progresses.

The complaint also reports that after the MTIC originally rejected the stop sign in July of 2020, then-City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe “received push back” from council members about the decision. It says she contacted the city attorney and that an “opinion memo” was issued “suggesting further consultation from an engineer” and stating that “ignoring plaintiff’s report could expose [the city] to liability.”

Asked for a copy, city attorney Andrew Jared this week told the South Pasadenan News the complaint’s description of the memo “does not provide sufficient information to direct the City towards a document responsive to your request.”


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.