In a major blow to the most high-profile legal effort yet to take down a group of territorial surfers in Palos Verdes Estates, a judge has dismissed a federal civil rights lawsuit filed against the city nearly two years ago.
In a 19-page decision on Monday, U.S. District Court Judge James Otero granted the city’s motion to throw out the lawsuit, ruling that two out-of-town surfers who claimed they were harassed by locals at Lunada Bay did not provide sufficient evidence that the city was complicit in discriminating against them.
Otero also decided claims against members of the alleged surfer gang known as the Bay Boys belong in state court, where the plaintiffs already have filed a separate lawsuit.
Almost two years later
El Segundo police Officer Cory Spencer, Malibu resident Diana Milena Reed and the nonprofit Coastal Protection Rangers brought the federal suit in March 2016, alleging the Bay Boys have had free reign to terrorize outsiders at Lunada Bay, an isolated beach beneath mansions that produces perfect big waves in the winter.
For decades, nonlocal surfers have reported that the Bay Boys have verbally threatened them, pelted them with rocks and even tampered with their vehicles to keep the waves to themselves.
The affluent city and its police force have long been accused of looking the other way to the alleged tactics, enabling activity that has effectively privatized the beach.
The lawsuit was the third filed against the city over surfing localism since 1995.
It sought to have Bay Boys classified as a criminal street gang, banned from Lunada Bay with a gang injunction, and to force the Palos Verdes Estates Police Department to investigate and prosecute their crimes. The plaintiffs also were seeking up to millions of dollars in state fines against the city and the surfers under the California Coastal Act for blocking beach access.
The lawsuit suffered a setback one year ago, when Otero denied it class-action status. An appeal of that decision was denied.
Evidence ‘extremely weak or nonexistent’
“Indeed, the record is replete with facts that demonstrate the city has been on notice of this harassment for years, and that some harassment continues to occur. The record also clearly reflects, however, that the city did implement some measures in an attempt to deter harassment, even if those measures were not as effective or as strong as nonresidents would have liked,” Otero wrote in the Feb. 12 decision.
“A city’s failure to effectively address certain crimes does not mean it is complicit in those crimes, and any evidence that would support the latter is either extremely weak or nonexistent.”
Over the past two years, depositions of high-ranking city officials and alleged Bay Boys and hundreds of pages of legal filings have raised questions about the city’s handling of localism, revealing a thwarted undercover sting operation that was leaked to the Bay Boys, and tracing segregation to transit routes and racially restrictive housing covenants.
The surfers have denied the allegations and maintain the Bay Boys do not exist. If anything, the city claims friendly relationships between some surfers and police officers are a sign of strong community policing.
Throughout the saga, which was reignited by undercover footage published by The Guardian in May 2015, Palos Verdes Estates leaders have accused the media of grossly exaggerating the surfing localism problem at Lunada Bay and downplaying the city’s steps to respond to complaints.
Plaintiffs to appeal
Ed Richards, an attorney representing Palos Verdes Estates and its police chief, said the news was “vindicating.”
“The decision dismissing the lawsuit really vindicated the city with regard to the accusations that have been directed at it over the past several years, particularly with the strong wording in the court’s opinion that in essence that the court’s review of the evidence leads it to conclude that the case against the city had no merit,” Richards said.
“Part of the vindication the city feels is the decision really endorses the police action that’s been taken by the police department at Lunada Bay.”
The plaintiffs’ lead attorneys, Vic Otten of Torrance and Kurt Franklin of the Northern California firm Hanson Bridgett LLP, said they do not see the ruling as a defeat.
“Trial courts make errors, that’s why we have appellate courts, and I’m respectful of Judge Otero, but it doesn’t mean I agree with him,” said Franklin, whose firm has devoted thousands of hours of pro bono work to the case. “There’s been no ruling in terms of the substance of the case as to the individuals and there’s been no ruling on the Coastal Act issues that are important to this case and the people of California. We’re in this case for the long haul.”
Otten said the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has not prosecuted several surfing cases forwarded by the Palos Verdes Estates Police Department since the lawsuit came about because the investigations were incomplete.
“It took a federal lawsuit and a state lawsuit to get the city to even pretend to comply with the Coastal Act, which they still aren’t, and to go up there to pretend to protect the public by putting up cameras,” Otten said. “They would’ve never done that without these lawsuits. We’re not going away, the state suit is going to have a lot more defendants in it.”
Franklin added that it wasn’t until after the lawsuit that city leaders decided to demolish a stone patio built by the Bay Boys without permits decades ago.
“If it wasn’t for pressure and the catalyst of this lawsuit, they’d still be throwing rocks at people up there,” he said.
Otten and Franklin plan to file an amended state complaint in coming weeks adding defendants and the assault, battery and Bane Act claims against the surfers that Otero would not consider.
Pat Carey, an attorney representing Allen “Jalian” Johnston, one of the surfers accused of harassing Reed, called the ruling “bittersweet.”
“Over the last two years, he’s bore a lot of personal expenses to defend against the lawsuit, he’s taken out time from his travel to fly home internationally to appear at required court obligations,” Carey said. “He’s still frustrated that he’s had to go through that and he’s maintained his innocence through this process. He’s kind of been dragged through the mud, so he’s frustrated in that respect.”
Johnston was quietly arrested in April 2016 on suspicion of battering and sexually harassing Reed on the beach, but prosecutors declined to file charges, citing lack of sufficient evidence.
Robert Cooper, an attorney representing another surfer accused of filming the incident, Brant Blakeman, said he, too, feels vindicated.
“This has been unbelievably difficult for Brant and his wife, Laura. This is a very happy day,” he said. “The plaintiffs had two years to prove the case and to put together evidence and they were well-funded, well-healed and they couldn’t come up with facts.”