SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) – A Southern California prosecutor has sued Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas in federal court, claiming he retaliated against her after she ran to unseat an incumbent judge he supported in the June 2016 election.
Karen Schatzle claims Rackauckas and his chief of staff, Susan Kang Schroeder, violated her free speech and association rights by denying her good job assignments and promotions after she challenged Orange County Superior Court Judge Scott Steiner for re-election.
Steiner had been censured by California’s judicial watchdog agency in 2014 for having sex in his chambers with a female law student and with a lawyer.
When she disclosed her intention to run, Rackauckas and Schroeder told her that if she did, “her career in the OCDA’s office would be ‘destroyed,’” Schatzle says in her 18-page lawsuit filed Thursday.
“Plaintiff was not specifically told what ‘career being destroyed’ meant, but she is experiencing it since she lost the judicial election in June, 2016.”
She also claims the county and the district attorney’s office violated her rights by “the expressed adoption of an official and unlawful ‘unwritten policy’” allowing retaliation against prosecutors who run against sitting judges.
Schatzle’s lawsuit does not specifiy how much she seeks in damages, but in a prelitigation formal claim to the county, she sought as much as $5 million, according to news accounts.
In a statement, the district attorney’s office said it will vigorously defend against the lawsuit. It said that Schatzle “has maintained the same salary schedule and same job duties” since 2015, “and [has] not been penalized in any way.”
Schatzle’s attorney, Joel Baruch of Irvine, was out of the office and could not be reached Friday afternoon.
A senior deputy district attorney, Schatze became a “team leader” in the office’s branch court operations section in March 2015.
Very shortly after taking that position, she announced she would run against Steiner. Rackauckas had endorsed Steiner, a former top prosecutor, saying he accepted the judge’s apology “for his failings” and believed he deserved a second chance.
Steiner won re-election with 56 percent of the votes to 44 percent for Schatzle.
Schatzle remained a team leader after the election. Following a disability leave from December 2016 to June 2017, she applied unsuccessfully for promotions to become an assistant head of court.
Instead, she says she “has in fact been assigned relatively trivial work well below her pay grade, thus marginalizing and isolating her from her peers.”
In her lawsuit, she notes that after the election, Steiner contributed $500 to Rackauckas’s campaign for re-election in 2018. “Plaintiff contends this campaign contribution was quid pro quo for defendant Rackauckas’ public support and disparagement of plaintiff” during the election.
She also claims that over his years as the district attorney, Rackauckas “has a well-deserved pattern and reputation of using his office to ‘help his friends’ and to ‘damage or destroy his enemies,’” which includes “squelching dissent and free speech among his employees.”
Schatzle’s action is not the first time Rackauckas has been sued by deputies who opposed him in elections. He defeated several suits by deputies and investigators who supported his opponent during the 1998 election, when he first won the district attorney post.
In the last of those early lawsuits, a federal jury in February 2009 rejected an employment lawsuit by a former high-ranking deputy, Joseph P. Smith, who Rackauckas had transferred from criminal to family-support matters in 2002.
Currently, Rackauckas is facing county claims from three department investigators “regarding the retaliation that they have each experienced as a result of exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech and association,” Schatzle says.
Two of those investigators are represented by Schatzle’s attorney.
Her lawsuit seeks unspecified and punitive damages on claims of federal civil rights violations and violations of California Labor Code provisions.