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City must pay cop $1 million in retaliation case

May 15, 2012 |  4:14 pm

The city of Los Angeles was ordered to pay just over $1 million in damages Tuesday after a jury found that LAPD officials retaliated against a sergeant who reported a superior officer for allegedly evading tolls for several months on the 91 Freeway.

Gregory W. Smith, the attorney representing Sgt. James Abbate, successfully argued that his client was subjected to retaliation and neglect-of-duty complaints after reporting the alleged violations by Ruben De La Torre, who worked in the LAPD's media relations office before being promoted to captain of the West Los Angeles Division.

De La Torre, who abruptly resigned last year in the midst of an LAPD internal affairs probe, was accused of repeatedly failing to pay proper tolls during commutes from his Inland Empire home to West Los Angeles.

In court, Smith presented evidence that De La Torre evaded tolls between March 2009 to January 2010, although he did not specify to jurors exactly how many of the alleged violations took place.

He also presented evidence that the former LAPD captain tried to cover up his alleged misdeeds by removing one of his license plates and taping over another. He was also accused of lying to LAPD investigators about the alleged misconduct.

Abbate, a 28-year-veteran, who had no history of prior personnel complaints, first raised concerns about De La Torre to his superiors in September 2009, according to Smith. De La Torre's alleged conduct was not addressed, but Abbate became the subject of two neglect-of-duty complaints, including an alleged failure to quickly send a squad car to the Getty Center-Malibu and take a domestic violence complaint.

Abbate was cleared of any wrongdoing, but Smith said De La Torre changed those findings to sustain the complaints against his client.

The Los Angeles County Superior Court jury, which voted 12-0 in favor of Abbate, reached its verdict in about four hours. The damages totaled just over $1 million and included $111,224 for future economic damages as well as past, non-economic damages of $475,000. In addition, the jury found future non-economic damages of $434,000.

The LAPD and the city attorney's office declined comment, citing a possible appeal in the case.

Smith, who has declared candidacy for Los Angeles city attorney, said the verdict was the latest in a string of victories for his clients who have sued the LAPD for retaliation.

"Despite numerous policies at the LAPD, attempts to stop retaliation [against whistleblowers] has failed," Smith said. "The policies aren't going to stop retaliation; it will require a change in culture from the rank of captain and above."

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-- Andrew Blankstein (Twitter.com/anblanx)

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