In his online advertising photograph, William L. Haluck--a ball-busting, Irvine lawyer skilled in masking Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) shenanigans at taxpayer expense--is, oddly, smiling. Having spent weeks with the glowering Haluck in a federal courtroom not long ago, I can't recall an instance of him even momentarily grinning. Instead, this scrappy, 36-year legal veteran with an undertaker's demeanor has perfected an icy smirk when he thinks he has outwitted opposing counsel, witnesses or judges.
Haluck is the chief attack dog for Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and OCSD in their puzzling--no, the better word is disgraceful--war on Scott Montoya. It's a war that shows no signs of ending. After the department fired the deputy, he won a harassment lawsuit against OCSD, but the sheriff refuses to accept the verdict.
Montoya's troubles began after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when he took temporary leave from his OCSD post, volunteered for Iraq War duty as a U.S. Marine sergeant, and ignored incoming enemy fire to rescue four seriously wounded colleagues and a civilian during the Battle of Baghdad. In January 2005, President George W. Bush hailed Montoya's bravery and bestowed upon him Navy Cross honors at a White House ceremony. National news programs aired profiles. A large billboard lauded him in Westminster. Southern California parade organizers sought his participation.
But the plot turned tragic upon the deputy's return to OCSD. Montoya found more than a few colleagues, including bosses, mocked his military service. They called him "Mr. Navy Cross" and "idiot"; created a poster belittling his medal; placed a giant dildo in his gear bag; threatened to assault him; concocted lies to derail his promotions; relocated his locker next to a toilet; abandoned him without backup when he responded to a call in a Mexican Mafia-infested area; tried to trip him when he walked through a department station; spent tax dollars encouraging the Pentagon to rescind the Navy Cross; placed surveillance cameras at his home and GPS monitoring devices on his personal vehicles; encouraged citizens to file complaints against him; and, in 2010, fired him, alleging he wasn't fit to wear the OCSD uniform.
When the Marine hero sued, an indignant Haluck responded in alignment with his aforementioned photo ad--the one that tells potential clients that he's daring, bold and fearless. "Taste the relish to be found in competition in having put forth the best within you," he advises, noting he borrowed the line from a fancied "industrialist" who died in 1967. The ad continues: Because "competitive sports have played an important role in Mr. Haluck's life . . . becoming a trial attorney seemed only natural."
Yeah, sure. Defending the indefensible--pretending OCSD acts were appropriate and Montoya deserved the hatred as well as being fired--is merely a sport played in a courtroom. I'm not suggesting Hutchens, who declined to comment, and the department don't deserve vigorous legal representation; I'm saying it's long past time to call off the wingtip-shoed pit bull whose bank account grows as he prolongs the game.
Sixteen months ago, a federal jury in Riverside considered Haluck's version of reality espoused endlessly over a period of weeks, then rejected it. Instead, jurors determined that OCSD's treatment amounted to the creation of a hostile job environment for Montoya and, thus, violated the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), a law that bans anti-military-service discrimination in the workplace. The verdict allows the ex-deputy to collect more than $500,000 in damages, plus legal costs.
But the payouts are on hold. OCSD and Haluck refuse to accept the trial's conclusion. The citizens' panel hadn't been reasonable, they claim in recently filed motions. And they want U.S. District Court Judge Jesus Bernal to admit he botched the case, reverse prior rulings, toss out the verdict and declare Montoya, who now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the loser, entitled to zero financial compensation. This latest offensive is illustrative of the laughable, self-serving groupthink that often emanates from OCSD's Santa Ana headquarters. Despite expert medical testimony accepted by the jury that a persistent, hostile environment caused Montoya's PTSD, Haluck wants to re-litigate the issue. He insists the deputy returned from the Iraq War with obvious signs of the medical condition, therefore the department shouldn't have to pay him for being unemployable nowadays.
That cockamamie stance can't survive a simple question: OCSD management really wants the public to believe it knowingly gave a badge, gun, arrest powers and neighborhood patrol duties for more than four years to a man suffering severe PTSD and trained in advanced sniper skills?
The Haluck defense is steeped in additional questionable reasoning. In a Dec. 31, 2014, filing to Bernal, he argued that Montoya isn't entitled to recover economic damages because even if the harassment occurred, the firing was legitimate, and not the final discriminatory act against a targeted employee. He also claimed the judge officially approved of Montoya's firing as legally justified.
In mid-January, however, Bernal corrected the attempt to rewrite history. He noted that the jury made two reasonable findings during the liability stage of the trial: a hostile work environment rendered the ex-deputy unemployable with PTSD and an anti-military animus factored into his firing. Before he finished, he slammed Haluck, writing "importantly, the Court made no decision on the merits of the [Montoya] termination" in pretrial rulings.
"The Court asked the jury to determine whether OCSD had a valid reason for terminating Montoya, and the jury answered in the negative," declared Bernal, who has scheduled a Feb. 23 hearing to attempt to close the case.
Haluck might have better luck opposing the $2.46 million in fees demanded by Montoya lawyer John Kyle of San Diego. A onetime Marine himself, Kyle and his team took the case pro bono and spent nearly 4,200 hours over several years facing an agency that, he says, operates with "arrogance," even for federal judges. They deserve to be paid for their services.
"Few lawyers would have considered taking a case like this against an agency as entrenched as OCSD," Kyle said. "Fewer still would have seen it through to a successful jury verdict. . . . On this motion for fees, the Court should hold OCSD to account for its litigation strategy and tactics as well. They made this litigation as difficult as possible for Sergeant Montoya, just as it made his career impossible once he returned from combat as a decorated war hero. Now the bill comes due for years of sandbagging, stonewalling and generally claiming that this case was too complex, too fact-intensive and too novel to be handled quickly and efficiently."
Haluck hasn't hidden his contempt on this point either.
"OCSD is not the 'intractable,' 'recalcitrant,' 'entrenched' and 'arrogant monster' Mr. Kyle claims it to be," he says.
Using OCSD funds, Haluck hired James P. Schratz, an acclaimed international legal auditor, to study Kyle's fee request and has told Bernal the bills are vague, erroneous and excessive. He wants the costs to be "severely" reduced, in part, because he still thinks he won the case.
The rationale? Of Montoya's original eight lawsuit claims, only one made it to the jury and succeeded.
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Of course, that argument is on par with the Green Bay Packers pretending they defeated the Seattle Seahawks in January's playoff game because the football team led scoring for three of the four quarters of play before losing.
An attempt to get Haluck to explain his victory dance failed, but to Kyle, his opponent's assertions are a continuation of "tired and specious" arguments.
"Enough is enough," he says.