Milpitas’ former city attorney has filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the city for what he calls a wrongful, retaliatory termination.
Last summer, the City Council axed Mike Ogaz, ostensibly to save money by outsourcing the city attorney’s entire department. But the timing was suspect, as Ogaz had recently called for an investigation into allegations that City Manager Tom Williams engaged in unethical and discriminatory conduct.
The allegations arose in April 2015, when then-planning director Steve McHarris filed a personnel complaint against Williams accusing him of racism, age discrimination, defamation and unethical conduct with developers. Because the complaint followed a slew of others, in addition to several high-level employee departures, Ogaz advised the council to investigate.
Ogaz told Mayor Jose Estevez about the allegations and scheduled a special council meeting to address the matter. A day later, according to the complaint, Williams threatened to have Ogaz disbarred and tried to fire McHarris, who had already accepted a job with the city of San Jose.
Councilwoman Debbie Indihar Giordano—the other defendant named in the case—“immediately retaliated” by adding an agenda item to evaluate Ogaz’s performance, according to the suit. She said the move stemmed from budgetary concerns. But in comments to San Jose Inside that week, Giordano admitted that she had concerns about “due process” and the way Ogaz was handling the McHarris complaint.
At no point before Ogaz’s firing did the city manager or the council raise concerns about the city attorney’s budget, per the complaint. In fact, Ogaz submitted a preliminary budget in January last year that sought to add a deputy city attorney position. At the time, Williams supported the proposal.
After the McHarris complaint, however, Giordano pushed to form a subcommittee to evaluate the financial impact of in-house versus outside counsel. Despite the apparent conflict of interest, Williams prepared the report on the matter.
Other council members expressed concern about the singular focus on Ogaz’s office. “Yeah, I just want to make sure that we’re not just picking on them,” Vice Mayor Carmen Montano said during a public meeting. “I just want to say that if we’re going to do it for one department, let’s do it for all.”
The lawsuit claims that Williams’ assessment was rife with factual errors and omissions. He allegedly failed to consider factors such as inflation and key comparator cities.
Ogaz claims the city violated whistleblower protection laws by retaliating against him for calling attention to illegal discrimination and other concerns.
“Plaintiff Ogaz’s speech was not purely employer-based speech, but rather an issue of social concern,” the lawsuit states, “that of illegal discrimination and unethical conduct with developers, and accordingly, falls within California’s free speech protections.”
The lawsuit seeks compensation for all legal fees, lost pay and emotional distress. Adam Zapala, an attorney for Ogaz, has already satisfied pre-filing requirements by submitting a government tort claim with the Department of Fair Housing and Employment.
The Ogaz lawsuit follows two age discrimination cases, one filed against the city by an employee and the other by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Lori Casagrande, an office specialist who hired her own attorney to sue the city, dropped her lawsuit and resumed working for the city in January after accepting a six-figure settlement.
The city’s former human resources chief, Carmen Valdez, has also filed a complaint through the EEOC alleging retaliation. She says Williams placed her on leave just days before her scheduled retirement last year, potentially threatening her pension and benefits.