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Wednesday, June 19, 2024 | Back issues
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Cop’s Retaliation Claim Against District Survives

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) - A federal judge refused to dismiss the bulk of a police officer's claim that Oakland Unified School District threatened him with economic ruin and jail time over his testimony about a fellow officer.

District police officer Jonathan Bellusa claims he saw fellow officer Barhin Bhatt "firing multiple shots at passenger Raheim Brown, resulting in Brown's death" during a 2011 traffic stop.

In July 2013, he filed a federal lawsuit against the O.U.S.D. Board of Education, its attorney Jacqueline Minor, Superintendent Anthony Smith, former Police Chief Peter Sarna and current Police Chief James Williams.

He claims that when he told school district lawyers that Bhatt "may have unnecessarily fired the bullets" that killed Brown, "they attempted to coerce Bellusa to conform his testimony to the version proffered by Bhatt, but to no avail."

He also complained to district officials about Sarna, the district's former police chief, who "uttered outrageous epithets concerning African-American and Asian-American children and police officers" during a drunken rant, according to the original complaint.

Bellusa says district officials retaliated against him by placing him on leave, stripping him of his service weapon and badge, launching an internal affairs investigation against him, and ordering him to undergo fitness exams.

Last December, U.S. District Judge Jacqueline Corley granted the defendants' motion to dismiss all but Bellusa's retaliation claims.

In early January, Bellusa filed a second amended complaint for retaliation against Williams, Sarna and Minor, claiming they violated the whistleblower protections of the California Education Code.

In an amended order filed last week, Corley trimmed Bellusa's claims against Sarna and Minor, but allowed him to pursue retaliation claims against Williams and the school district.

Bellusa's claims for education code violations against Williams and Smith also survived the renewed motion to dismiss.

Corley said she allowed the retaliation claim against Williams because the defense failed to first file for a motion for reconsideration of her December order, in which she refused to dismiss that claim.

"Despite that ruling, defendants move again to dismiss that claim without first seeking leave to file a motion for reconsideration," Corley wrote.

Corley said the district may be liable for whistleblower retaliation, because Bellusa had shown that he was put on administrative leave for refusing to meet with the district's attorneys.

Finally, Corley said Bellusa could sue Williams and Smith for alleged education code violations, because his claim that Williams initiated the internal affairs investigation without proper justification "plausibly suggests that Williams retaliated against plaintiff for his disclosure of Sarna's racist comments."

The remaining defendants have until April 14 to file an answer to Bellusa's second amended complaint.

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