Attorneys on both sides of discrimination suit allege shenanigans
on March 9, 2012
Hours after court recessed Wednesday, attorney Stephen Jaffe was still miffed.
That morning, defense attorneys filed a motion seeking sanctions against Jaffe—who is representing six of the seven African American police officers who are suing the city of Richmond and its chief of police for racial discrimination—for allegedly berating and making racist comments to a member of their staff.
In a sworn statement, Joaquin Elizondo, an assistant employed by the firm Meyers, Nave, Riback, Silver & Wilson alleged that on four separate occasions Jaffe subjected Elizondo to verbal abuse, interrogation and racially-insensitive comments. The last incident, which allegedly occurred March 6, prompted Elizondo to file the formal complaint.
Elizondo’s statement: read the court document here
Jaffe said he thinks he’s been set up. “The complaint references things happening on specific days in January,” Jaffe said during a telephone interview late Wednesday. “Either (Elizondo) has the best memory in the world, or he has been setting up for something.”
Jaffe declined to comment on what he believed Elizondo’s motives would be for filing the complaint, or why it constituted a set up.
Elizondo, in an email on Friday, said, “Stephen Jaffe’s claims that I was following him are absolutely false and absurd.”
Proceedings into Jaffe’s comments began Wednesday morning—outside the presence of the jury—with attorneys Geoffrey Spellberg and Arthur Hartinger, who head the legal team representing Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus, former Deputy Chief Lori Ritter and the city, filing a motion requesting Judge Barry Goode impose unspecified sanctions on Jaffe and his associates to halt “this offensive conduct.”
According to the statement from Elizondo filed with the court, which described an incident that he said happened March 6: “… as plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ counsel were exiting the courtroom for the lunch break, Mr. Jaffe turned to look at me and said, ‘There you go, Joaquin, you get to leave now—the guard Chihuahua!’ Mr. Jaffe laughed as he passed into the hallway. Mr. Collier (Jaffe’s co-counsel) who was present, also laughed. I know the term ‘Chihuahua’ to be a derogatory term for someone of Latino decent. Being Latino, I found this racially derogatory comment offensive.”
In his sworn statement, Elizondo described each of the four incidents as occurring while he was either working on his computer, restocking a supply box or taking his lunch break.
In a phone conversation late Wednesday, Jaffe admitted calling Elizondo a “Chihuahua,” but said it carried no racial intent. “The Chihuahua thing, I’ve never heard that as a racial epithet,” Jaffe said. “I meant it simply as a guard dog … I should have said Yorkshire Terrier, [Elizondo] is a small guy.”
Elizondo feels different. In his email statement, he said, “I do not believe that (Jaffe) did not know that ‘Chihuahua’ is a racial slur. It is a well known racial slur, and given his occupation, his claim that he did not know is simply not credible.”
Goode declined on Wednesday morning to sanction Jaffe, but did urge him to apologize to Elizondo, which he did.
A longtime attorney who has made his career trying discrimination cases, Jaffe has a reputation for a sharp wit and flamboyant courtroom manner. In representing six of the seven high-ranking African American plaintiffs suing the city, Magnus and Ritter, Jaffe has often engaged in barbed banter with his rival attorneys, particularly Spellberg. Jaffe’s clients accuse Magnus and Ritter of, among other things, subjecting them to inappropriate racial commentary and jokes.
The way Jaffe describes it, the trial has taken on a vaguely cloak and dagger quality. According to Jaffe, Elizondo has been on his and his colleagues’ tails since the trial began on January 17. Jaffe admitted that he ribbed Elizondo on one occasion, asking Elizondo whether his work was “stocking or stalking?”
“Early on, me and my two colleagues would go out walking around Martinez, looking for places to eat,” Jaffe said. “Everywhere we went, we’d run into this guy. It was eerie, uncanny.”
During the hearing Wednesday morning, Spellberg and Hartinger denied there was any effort to gather extra-judicial intelligence.
At least two members of East Bay press organizations were present for the 9:30 a.m. hearing, and left soon after. Jaffe accused his rivals of tipping them off, to which Spellberg and Hartinger shook their heads in denial.
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