Lawsuit Seeks Sanctions vs. City Over LaBonge Doc Destruction

Attorneys for Ken and Annette York say documents related to their land use case were destroyed, like these other boxes of documents, by former Los Angeles City Councilmember Tom LaBonge in the weeks before he left office in June 2015. A recent filing asks the Los Angeles Superior Court to impose sanctions on the city for LaBonge's actions.  Photo: Allison B. Cohen

Attorneys for Ken and Annette York say documents related to their land use case were destroyed, like these other boxes of documents, by former Los Angeles City Councilmember Tom LaBonge in the weeks before he left office in June 2015. A recent filing asks the Los Angeles Superior Court to impose sanctions on the city for LaBonge’s actions. Photo: Allison B. Cohen

(LOS ANGELES) A lawsuit filed Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court against the city regarding the destruction of documents by former Los Angeles City Councilmember Tom LaBonge related to a Hollywood Hills land-use case is asking for sanctions against the city and states that “LaBonge violated state laws and [c]ity ordinances by [such] destruction.”

In the 22-page filing, attorneys for Ken and Annette York are asking the court to rule, by default, in the Yorks’ favor in the litigation as punishment for the destruction of documents, which had been requested by the Yorks’ attorneys as part of discovery in their case. The motion also seeks $65,000 in attorneys fees for time the Yorks’ attorneys spent regarding the documents destruction component of the lawsuit, which was initially filed in 2015.

The “[c]ity intentionally destroyed evidence that is essential to the Yorks’ claims,” and that doing so has “irreparably prejudiced” the Yorks, the latest motion read.

At issue is the couple’s desire for permits and city approvals to grade the large hillside property they own at 6459 Innsdale Dr.–just west of Griffith Park–to construct a single-family home, a guest house and an access driveway.

The lawsuit claims LaBonge and his staff had improper communications with other city agencies related to the Yorks’ project and that it was prejudiced, from the start, due to the whims of the former councilmember.

According to the lawsuit, “LaBonge made clear that he wanted to preserve the undeveloped land around Griffith Park, and to expand the park to the [w]est and incorporate the York property.”

While the city did approve the grading of a small portion of the Yorks’ property, according to the lawsuit it was not enough for their project, triggering an appeal by the Yorks.

According to the lawsuit, during a zoning appeal hearing on the matter in 2014, LaBonge’s Chief of Land Use Deputy Renee Weitzer argued, “[w]e’re continuing trying to increase Griffith Park in every way possible. [LaBonge] does not believe it is important enough for anybody to be granted these variances so that you can scar the mountains of Los Angeles forever.”

The Yorks’ appeal was denied. The couple later filed suit in January 2015 saying the city’s actions were a violation of their civil rights and that they had been deprived use of their property.

For that, the Yorks are seeking $50 million in damages.

According to the recent court filing, the Yorks’ had requested various documents by way of the California Public Records Act related to their case in 2015. According to the lawsuit, the city responded, at that time, that it had 355 pages of related documents.

But the city, soon after, requested and was granted a stay by the court in the proceedings, which stopped the city from providing the documents to the Yorks’ they had requested.

The stay was lifted in January 2016.

According to the lawsuit, when the Yorks learned through the media, at about that same time, LaBonge had destroyed public records, the city reassured them “all relevant records,” related to their case, “in the possession of . . . LaBonge in relation to this matter are detained.”

But according to the lawsuit, Weitzer, in a June 2015 deposition transcript related to another case, testified, “all the records in the office have been dumped. . . Everything is gone. [E]very thing in the office was destroyed.”

More recently, in another deposition, dated March 2016, Weitzer testified that she had informed LaBonge prior to his leaving office that she had files, including documents related to the Yorks’ case.

According to the recent filing, LaBonge ordered Weitzer put the documents in a box and give it to another council staffer, Jonathan Brand. The filing noted, Weitzer told Brand the contents of the box were important to ongoing litigation issues within the council district.

But according to the lawsuit, Brand testified during the same March deposition “that because LaBonge had directed his staff to dispose of all their files, Brand destroyed all the documents in that box.”

The lawsuit also claims the city has refused to produce two other LaBonge former staffers who were witness to the destruction of the documents for additional depositions related to the Yorks’ case.

Additionally, the lawsuit states the city further told the Yorks last week it will block any further discovery regarding the destruction of documents.

In the lawsuit, it states “[d]estroying documents ‘can destroy fairness and justice,’” regarding public officials and their actions.

The lawsuit also pleads that when the destruction of evidence in a lawsuit occurs after litigation has started, which is the case here according to the Yorks’ attorneys, a dismissal of the case by way of sanctions is “especially warranted.”

As has been previously reported, LaBonge ordered at least 113 boxes of documents from his office destroyed in the weeks before leaving office, June 30, 2015.

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