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Thursday, July 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Civil War Heats Up in California State Bar

LOS ANGELES (CN) - The California State Bar fired a public information officer who had close ties to ousted Bar leader Joseph Dunn, the fired press officer claims in court.

Thomas Layton claims that current chief trial counsel Jayne Kim tried to drag him into her "high-profile war against Joseph Dunn," arising out of Dunn's report that Kim had removed 269 backlogged cases from internal records to make her office appear more productive.

Dunn subsequently sued the Bar and its President Craig Holden in a whistleblower action, and that case is now in arbitration.

"Someone is off the rails at the State Bar," Layton's attorney Robert Baker told Courthouse News. "I don't know who it is, but I'm going to find out."

Layton sued the California State Bar, Kim and 20 "board defendants"on Monday in Superior Court.

Dunn hired Layton in 2013 as a liaison between his office and judges, sheriffs and others. Layton had been a State Bar investigator for 14 years.

According to the lawsuit, Layton was questioned at Kim's direction on Sept. 26, 2014, around the time Dunn was investigating Kim. Layton says he was asked a number of questions about "various discussions he had with State Bar personnel," wherein he learned that some of his own confidential personnel information had been disclosed.

"Mr. Layton believed the questioning and disclosures were intended to injure him for his ties to Mr. Dunn, to unjustifiably draw him into the controversy involving Dunn, and to impugn his reputation with the State Bar," the lawsuit states.

Layton filed a grievance on Oct. 16, 2014, alleging violations of his union contract and State Bar policies.

After Dunn was fired in November 2014, Layton says, he was put on administrative leave and told the State Bar didn't need his services anymore. It then killed his job slot.

"They took his email away and his access code away and they said, 'We don't know what you do and we don't have reason for you to come here,'" Baker said in an interview.

Baker said Layton seeks damages in the six-figure range.

"He hasn't got a job. So he's seeking damages for his loss of employment, what they put him through, and how they hurt his reputation."

Layton's lawsuit comes on the heels of a similar lawsuit from Sonja Oehler, Dunn's former secretary, who claims she was fired for her connection to Dunn and for knowing about the backlog issue.

Baker said he believes Layton's firing was punitive.

"Everybody associated with Joe Dunn has been eliminated thanks to Jayne Kim," he said. "The one who should have been eliminated is Jayne Kim."

Layton says he tried to apply for an investigator job to which his union contract gave him priority, but Kim and other high-ranking Bar officials "held a series of meetings to determine how to block Mr. Layton from returning to work at the State Bar."

Layton says he was given his first-ever poor work evaluation, which was used as a pretext to reject his application and to effectively lay him off as of Nov. 20, 2015.

Moez Kaba with Hueston Hennigan, the Bar's attorney in both Layton and Oehler's cases, told Courthouse News, "We're confident that the conduct of the State Bar and all the individuals named as defendants was entirely proper. We look forward to addressing the complaint in the appropriate forum. We don't believe there is any factual or legal merit to his allegations."

Kaba cited the State Bar's recent anti-SLAPP motion, which states that independent investigators from the law firm Munger, Tolles and Olson claimed Dunn had improperly used State Bar funds to finance a trip to Mongolia. This, in addition to other claims in the Munger, Tolles and Olson report, was what led to Dunn's removal, the State Bar said in its motion.

In that motion, the State Bar also said the law firm's investigation arose out of Kim's internal whistleblower complaint against Dunn for ethics violations, and that Dunn filed his lawsuit in retaliation "presumably to divert attention from [his] own wrongdoing."

Kaba, who submitted a declaration for the case, said Tuesday, "It is unfortunate that instead of presenting the truth, these complaints have attacked dedicated public servants to the Bar."

Layton seeks reinstatement, lost wages, an injunction, damages and punitive damages for wrongful firing, retaliation, and intentional interference with prospective economic relations.

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