Mayor, plaintiff’s lawyer at odds after federal lawsuit deposition

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published October 5, 2018

WARREN — Transcripts from more than 20 depositions were filed alongside other documents last month in an ongoing federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Warren, brought by former police officer Desheila Howlett.

It was the inclusion of excerpts from one deposition in particular — court-approved questioning of Warren Mayor Jim Fouts in August — that prompted the mayor to call for legal sanctions against Howlett’s attorney for allegedly violating the orders of the judge presiding over the case in U.S. District Court.

Sources said Fouts, who was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, was questioned under oath for three and a half hours Aug. 23 by Howlett’s attorney, Leonard Mungo. The mayor was deposed after Mungo’s request to do so was approved by U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Berg earlier this year.

Fouts later alleged that Mungo “has been constantly contacting media for the sole purpose of making his meritless case about me when I am not a defendant in the case.” He claimed that Mungo informed the media of the time, duration and location of his deposition, and that he actively violated Berg’s order from June that set expectations with regard to professional conduct and the handling of deposition material.

“Mungo is blatantly violating a federal judge’s clear order and engaging in a personal vendetta against me through persistent media contacts,” Fouts said Sept. 27. He further alleged that Mungo was attempting to “embarrass me and taint the jury pool with irrelevant information.”

Mungo declined to comment on the mayor’s allegations and would only reference the judge’s order, which outlines how excerpts from the mayor’s deposition can be used in court filings.

In a transcript from court proceedings on Aug. 6, Berg ordered “that the entire deposition itself should not be filed without leave of the court,” and that “simply because the deposition is taken, I don’t want either party to simply file the deposition in the public docket unless you ask permission to do so and explain the reasons why it’s necessary.” According to the transcript, Berg did say, however, that excerpts of the deposition can be filed in support of motions included as part of the public record.  

The lawsuit, filed in the spring of 2017 by Howlett, claims that the city’s “first African-American police officer” was racially harassed. The complaint alleges that Howlett was “constantly peppered with inappropriate, insulting, demeaning, racially stereotypical and offensive” behavior while she worked at the Warren Police Department between 2007 and 2013. The filing went further, citing Warren’s “notorious history of racially discriminatory practices against African-Americans,” which, according to allegations laid out in the lawsuit, constituted a “custom, policy and practice of racial discrimination” that was “publicly evidenced, for example, through racially disparaging and insulting comments reportedly made by the current mayor of Warren.”

Among those deposed in the case was former Warren Diversity Coordinator Gregory  Murray, appointed by Fouts in January 2017. At the time, Fouts was embroiled in controversy after a series of leaked audio recordings surfaced that appeared to feature the mayor’s voice disparaging disabled people, older women and blacks. One recording appeared to feature Fouts’ voice comparing blacks to chimpanzees.

Attorneys representing the city and the named parties later asked the judge to strike a portion of Murray’s deposition. Berg, however, denied that request.  

Murray cited stalled administration support for diversity programs, the mayor’s alleged expressed concerns about negative political fallout as a result of diversity initiatives, and his own refusal to participate in political fundraisers when he resigned in December 2017.

Howlett’s allegations center on a “Monell” claim, a legal provision that permits individuals to sue municipalities over alleged civil rights violations tied to their customs, policies or practices.

The lawsuit names the city, former Warren Police Commissioner Jere Green, and several police officers and commanders who worked with Howlett. In their defense, attorneys have denied the allegations and labeled Howlett’s claims as untrue. They also denied that Howlett was the city’s first black officer.

A review of the documents and the transcripts show that 16 pages from the mayor’s deposition were included as part of an attachment to a motion filed on Sept. 20. The fragments included questions from Mungo about the city charter, Fouts’ duties as mayor and his knowledge of rules, and regulations and policies for city departments. In a later fragment, Mungo asked Fouts about “allegations that you have expressed racial animus by using derogatory terms toward African-Americans in the media.” He later asked the mayor if it was his voice “on those recordings.”

Fouts declined to answer the questions on the advice of attorney Raechel Badalamenti, who was there to represent him for the deposition. Attorney Ronald Acho, representing the city and the named officers, argued that Mungo’s line of questioning had “nothing to do with Monell,” and threatened to “seek a sanction (against Mungo), because this is exactly what you’re not supposed to do.”

Outside the scope of the deposition, Fouts has repeatedly claimed that the recordings were “phony” and that they are “manipulated” by his political enemies.