Monday, Feb. 18, 2008 | An ongoing breach of contract and fraud lawsuit against a top city of San Diego official and the redevelopment wing she leads has shed light on state laws that provide public workers with immunity in certain instances and give them publicly funded legal representation.
California law generally offers public employees immunity from being personally sued when they are working in an official capacity, but that immunity vanishes in the presence of misconduct, as is alleged in the fraud lawsuit against redevelopment official Carolyn Y. Smith.
The idea behind the immunity is two-fold: Government officials can’t do their jobs if they’re bogged down in personal lawsuits, and it’d be difficult to recruit quality employees to public positions if they had to deal with the risk of paying for legal representation out of their own pocket.
“(The limited immunity exists) so that they can spend their time discharging the duties of their office rather than spending their time defending lawsuits,” said Thomas Barton, a law professor at California Western School of Law.
In the current suit here in San Diego, small business owners Mark and Sharon Petrarca allege that Smith, president of the Southeastern Economic Development Corp., the organization that oversees the revitalization of some of San Diego’s poorest neighborhoods, duped them into a legal settlement that she never intended to uphold.