South Pasadena BLM Protests | Judge Restores Complaint Against City

The city council is slated to receive a report on the new ruling during a closed session November 16.

FILE PHOTO: Eric Fabbro | News | BLM Organizers/ protesters Fahren James, and Victoria Patterson

A federal judge this month upped the ante in two BLM protesters’ civil rights claims against the City of South Pasadena, updating an earlier decision that would have spared the City from potential liability for discriminating against BLM protestors and failing to train police officers in the handling of hate crimes.

In her 42-page ruling November 3, US District Court Judge Dale S. Fischer also affirmed her June 15 order on the plaintiffs’ civil rights claims against Sgts. Matthew Ronnie, Spencer Louie, Robert Bartl; Cpl. Randy Wise; and Off. Chris Perez. She granted dismissal of three claims but denied dismissal of three others.

The judge gave plaintiffs Fahren James of Los Angeles and Victoria Patterson of South Pasadena until November 30 to perfect and refile the claims that were dismissed. One of their attorneys, Laboni Hoq, told the South Pasadenan this week they intend to do so, and will likely include additional evidence yielded in discovery that was not available when they filed their amended complaint.

- Advertisement -

The original October. 18, 2021 complaint stems from incidents that took place at demonstrations James organized here during the summer and fall of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, and in particular the way city officers handled alleged attacks perpetrated against the plaintiffs by BLM opponents Richard Cheney of South Pasadena and Joseph Richcreek of Monterey Park.

The city’s outside counsel–Carpenter, Rothans & Dumont–filed to dismiss the claims against the city and its officers. In its most recent filing August 24, the City argued plaintiffs’ “failed to allege sufficient facts to sustain” their claims.

The city council is slated to receive a report on the new ruling during a closed session November 16. The City Manager’s office declined to respond to any questions about the case, saying the City does not comment on ongoing litigation.

In updating her June 15 ruling expanding the number of claims that can go forward, Judge Fischer said the plaintiffs “plausibly alleged” the City was on notice that its “purported policy of repressing First Amendment rights violated the Constitution” and that this policy was the “moving force” behind the injuries the plaintiffs sustained. The City “fail[ed] to provide an alternative explanation that rendered the plaintiffs’ version of the facts implausible,” she added.

Plausibility is the standard required for municipal liability under the Supreme Court’s 1978 Monell decision.

“What is important about [the order] is that the court allowed our claim of liability against the City, not just about a few officers,” Hoq told the South Pasadenan. “The City failed to train its police force on the policies and practices” over how to handle hate crimes, “and that is what caused those violations.”

The City’s own investigation sustained 21 of 53 administrative complaints made against nine officers in connection with the demonstrations—including five complaints against two of the officers  named in lawsuit; the former city manager conceded city police needed training “to recognize when a crime should be considered a hate crime” and installed a new police chief who said he would make such training a priority.

But the City has never made public what if any personnel actions it took in response to the administrative complaints its investigation sustained. This week, the City declined to answer that question, again citing pending litigation.

“The evidence in this case shows that SPPD officers at every level violated their own hate crimes and anti-bias policies,” Hoq said, “and it is our understanding that not a single officer was disciplined for it–we haven’t seen any evidence to the contrary.”

Hoq said while the administrative complaints sustained by the City’s investigation constituted some acknowledgement, they are insufficient. In the ongoing discovery process, “we are still learning the extent of the findings of that investigation, but what we have learned so far is that the City has not fully appreciated the harm that they inflicted on our clients. We don’t necessarily agree that the investigation was thorough, acknowledged all of the wrongdoing of the City, or that the City actually did anything in response to holding the police department accountable.” But she said discovery has yielded new information “to support our claims.”

The latest order also affirmed the court’s denial of city dismissal motions related to police handling of the actions of Cheney and Richcreek.

Cheney allegedly drove his truck “across three lanes of traffic,” onto a sidewalk a few feet away from where James was protesting, to inform her she was not allowed to put up a sign. Richcreek spat at Patterson and later threw a rock at James. Cheney was never arrested or cited and Richcreek was not taken into custody until James insisted it be done by officers pursuant to her citizen arrest. Cpl. Wise allegedly told Richcreek, “I’m not arresting you, SHE is.”

Cpl. Wise and Sgt. Ronnie argued their respective failures to arrest Richcreek or Cheney were not due to an alleged animus to BLM protestors or to chill BLM protestors free speech rights, but because under state law they cannot do so without having actually witnessed the misdemeanor offense.

The court called those arguments “unavailing.”

In Cpl. Wise’s case, this was because the statute requiring an officer witness the misdemeanor was not the law under which Richcreek was ultimately arrested, and because of earlier statements Wise allegedly made saying BLM protestors “caused this” and engaged in “cop hating.”

In Sgt. Ronnie’s case, it was because James accused Cheney of a felony, for which an officer’s presence is not required to effect an arrest, and because Ronnie spoke to James while wearing a “Thin Blue Line” logo that plaintiffs assert is “known” to oppose the BLM movement and to be “associated with White supremacy,” a sentiment Cheney shares, as evidenced by social media postings that referenced his “lov[ing] the White supremist extremist group the Proud Boys.”

“Accepting these allegations as true for purposes of this motion,” the judge wrote, “James plausibly alleges that Ronnie’s decision to order SPPD officers not to arrest or cite Cheney was motivated by his opposition to the BLM movement and he intended to chill or silence James’s free speech.”

Cheney is a defendant in the civil case but did not move to dismiss. Richcreek is not a defendant but ultimately plead to two counts of misdemeanor battery.

While the case is poised to go forward, Hoq said the plaintiffs are open to a settlement.

“We want justice and accountability for our clients. The City needs to make amends to them, take action against offending officers all the way to the top, and make systemic changes at SPPD so the community can regain trust that it will protect all community members without fear or favor.” She said that to the extent the City is willing to acknowledge significant mistakes, the harm her clients suffered, and to make amends, the plaintiffs are “certainly open” to settlement.

The case is ongoing even as James is pursuing a separate action against the City of Los Angeles and seven police officers in connection with BLM protests in that city. James said the police violated her civil rights by “repeatedly striking” her with a baton, shooting her “multiple times with metal and rubber bullets and then leaving [her] bruised and bloodied on the sidewalk.”

The City of Los Angeles and several officers recently filed answers in that case.

There, as in the South Pasadena case, James is seeking a range of exemplary and punitive damages.


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.