California city sues councilmember at center of $700,000 sexual harassment lawsuits

California city sues councilmember at center of $700,000 sexual harassment lawsuits

The city of Montclair is pursing legal action against Councilmember Ben Lopez for damages it incurred in two sexual harassment lawsuits filed by city employees.

The city filed a cross complaint against Lopez after it settled with the two employees who alleged Lopez made unwanted sexual advances toward them. A hearing on the city’s cross complaint against Lopez is set for later this year.

Lopez did not respond to a request for comment over several days, but previously said the lawsuits are politically motivated and aim to take him out of office. His seat is on the November 2024 ballot.

With its complaint against Lopez, the city seeks to recover legal fees it has paid as a result of the employees’ lawsuits. The city has paid more than $700,000 in legal fees associated with those lawsuits, officials say.

In December 2021, two employees sued the city and Lopez alleging unwanted sexual advances, sexual harassment and discrimination against them on the basis of their sexual orientation.

The city hired a third-party investigator to look into the accusations and, after receiving the investigator’s report, the City Council formally censured Lopez in April 2022. Soon after, the council removed Lopez from his committees and the city formally requested that he attend additional sexual harassment-prevention training, aside from the training he was required to complete upon taking office.

The council allocated $5,000 for that training and Lopez was given two options — he could attend training May 30, 2022 at Montclair City Hall or on June 1, 2022 in Los Angeles, according to City Manager Edward Starr. Lopez had not attended any additional training as of Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024.

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After an October 2022 mediation hearing, the city settled with Garcia and Fuentes for $550,000 sometime in early 2023.

On Feb. 5, 2023 the city served Lopez with a cross complaint in an attempt to recoup its costs from the litigation and the settlement, said Diane Robbins, a lawyer with Robbins & Holdaway, the firm representing the city.

Lopez was not a part of the city’s mediation, Starr said. Robbins said the employees’ lawsuits against Lopez are pending.

According to Starr, the city expects to spend up to $900,000 on litigation costs associated with its complaint against Lopez.

“So our remaining exposure would be ongoing litigation costs,” Starr said. “And typically to go to trial, one can anticipate that you’re going to spend a couple hundred thousand on attorneys and trial.”

A hearing to decide if the employees’ lawsuits and the cross complaint will go to trial is anticipated sometime late 2024.