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Last month during an interview with Rafael Castellanos on our podcast, Scott Lewis asked him about a case he said he was glad to finally discuss openly. Castellanos is running for city attorney in San Diego, and he said that his rivals were spreading rumors about a sexual harassment allegation he faced. Castellanos said he was happy to clear it up.
The allegations, of course, raised a red flag, after the drama and debacle of Bob Filner’s brief term as mayor.
An attorney from Castellanos’ former firm claimed, among other things, that she had an uncomfortable sexual encounter with him and when she complained about it she was forced out of the firm.
Castellanos replied that her claims were a lie – and that the public record from the case proves it.
“Ultimately, all of those allegations against me were completely discredited,” Castellanos said. (Here’s the full podcast. The discussion about the case begins around the 26-minute mark.)
So is what Castellanos saying true? I set about finding what the case was about and how it ended.
In 2010, Kate McSpadden filed a lawsuit claiming that she was sexually harassed and retaliated against during her time as an attorney at local firm Solomon Ward. McSpadden alleged that Solomon Ward had an old-boys club atmosphere, and that Castellanos, whom she described as her supervisor at the firm, physically pressured her to have sex with him after a work party. When she said she told a superior about what happened, her work was cut and she eventually left the firm.
Both Solomon Ward and Castellanos, who was named individually in the suit as was a partner in the firm, defended themselves vigorously. They said McSpadden was a poor worker who was overwhelmed, Castellanos wasn’t her supervisor, the physical contact between the two was consensual and the firm appropriately responded to her concerns.
In March 2011, Solomon Ward filed a motion to get the case thrown out of court. A few months later, McSpadden’s attorney filed his own motion in opposition. But before a judge could decide, the case settled.
That’s the end of the court docket.
How does all this compare with what Castellanos said about the case? Here’s a fuller version of his comments from our interview:
“This happened a number of years ago. There was a disgruntled, ex-employee at the firm who made a number of allegations against a number of people. Named one of the partners, named me, named the firm.
Ultimately, all of those allegations against me were completely discredited. That evidence, those declarations from witnesses, are a matter of public record. I didn’t pay a single cent to this individual. It’s not confidential. It’s completely a matter of public record. I was completely vindicated.
Anyone who is in business knows that anyone can sue anyone for anything. It’s unfortunate. But in this case, I was completely vindicated.”
Castellanos, who no longer works at Solomon Ward but at another firm, Solomon Minton, went on to call the lawsuit “frivolous” and said that McSpadden’s claims about her encounter with him were “100 percent untrue and the public record and the evidence completely demonstrates that.”
Let’s start first with Castellanos’ claim that everything about the case is in the public record. It isn’t.
The settlement he’s describing isn’t in the court file, which is typical. So I asked Castellanos’ campaign for any settlements from the case as well as his full, unredacted deposition.
Bill Wachob, Castellanos’ campaign consultant, gave me Castellanos’ full deposition as well as McSpadden’s and the settlement between McSpadden and Castellanos.
Castellanos is right that he didn’t pay anything to McSpadden in a settlement. The settlement between them is for zero dollars and releases Castellanos from all claims in the case. Castellanos also did not admit to doing anything wrong.
However, parties in lawsuits like these often have separate agreements. Recall that the city paid Filner’s former spokeswoman Irene McCormack $250,000 to settle her sexual harassment case against him. Filner personally didn’t pay anything to McCormack.
And there is a separate settlement in this case, too. No one who would have access to the settlement would give it to me, and McSpadden couldn’t be reached for comment.
But Fern Steiner, Solomon Ward’s attorney in the case, told me what McSpadden received. Steiner said the firm settled the case for roughly one month’s severance pay for McSpadden. The settlement was paid by the firm’s insurance carrier, Steiner said, and the firm admitted no wrongdoing.
She said McSpadden’s demands ended up becoming something easy to handle.
“Once the plaintiff’s settlement offer dropped to a nuisance value amount it made little financial sense to the (insurance) carrier to pursue findings of facts in the case,” Steiner said.
Beyond the settlement, Castellanos also contended that the evidence in the case demonstrates that McSpadden’s claims about his conduct were “100 percent untrue” and “completely discredited.”
The key event is a party held by then-colleagues at the firm and its aftermath. In their depositions under oath, both Castellanos and McSpadden say wildly different things about what happened.
According to Castellanos:
• They were both drinking at the party, McSpadden came onto him and they began kissing.
• They left in a cab together to go to his condo.
• They continued kissing in the cab, in the lobby and in the elevator.
• McSpadden decided to leave abruptly as soon as she got to his condo and nothing happened inside.
According to McSpadden:
• They were both drinking at the party, but nothing happened there.
• They walked to Castellanos’ condo because Castellanos said he was going to give her cab fare for a ride to her house.
• Castellanos forcibly kissed her along the street without her consent.
• Inside the condo, Castellanos took her hand and forced it onto his crotch, grabbed her when she tried to leave and tried to force her head down onto his crotch. Eventually, he let her go.
As part of the evidence in the case, colleagues of Castellanos submitted testimony that they saw the two kissing at the party, which certainly bolsters part of his account. But McSpadden never retracted any of her testimony.
Given all these facts, I asked Wachob what showed that McSpadden had been discredited. Wachob said it was the totality of the evidence, but specifically the settlement between Castellanos and McSpadden.
“I don’t know anyone else who would be involved in a lawsuit where it would have been completely thrown out, no damages paid, no attorney’s fees paid, who wouldn’t say that this is completely discredited,” Wachob said.
I ran the entire scenario by four experts in employment law: University of San Diego law professor Orly Lobel, Thomas Jefferson law professors Susan Bisom-Rapp and Rebecca Lee and Phillip Kossy, a partner at Procopio, Cory, Hargreaves & Savitch. The consensus was the same. Yes, assuming that Steiner’s account of the settlement is accurate, McSpadden didn’t get paid very much. But they agree that nothing from the case proves McSpadden wrong.
“In and of itself [a settlement] releases the defendant from all liability but it doesn’t prove anything as to the allegations – it doesn’t ‘completely discredit’ the claims although it could, absent anything else to the contrary, suggest that the case was weak,” Lobel said.
“A settlement would not cause disbelief in the accuracy of a party’s testimony,” Bissom-Rapp said.
“The fact that a settlement was reached in his case would not automatically demonstrate that the female attorney’s allegations are ‘completely discredited,’ especially if there is no evidence that the female attorney retracted her statements or deposition testimony,” Lee said.
“What happened in that room only two people know about it,” Kossy said. “She discredited what he says and vice-versa.”
Lobel, however, was the most sympathetic to Castellanos’ phrasing.
“Bottom line: I don’t think that it is unreasonable for a candidate to state that a settlement that provides no compensation and releases him from all liability as discrediting the allegations – one should have the benefit of the doubt of being innocent unless proven otherwise,” she said.
So let’s review what we’ve found.
Castellanos maintained that a sexual harassment lawsuit against him was so outrageous that it was proven false and that anyone could go down to the courthouse and see that for themselves.
In reality, the lawsuit settled, though for what amounted to a small severance that he personally didn’t have to pay. But that information wasn’t public. And while Castellanos never admitted to doing anything wrong or physically intimidating in his deposition or settlement, McSpadden’s accusations against him under oath remain on the record.
Update: After this post published, Castellanos, via his spokesman, sent over this statement: “Anyone who reviews the voluminous evidence in the public record, including the sworn testimony of numerous witnesses, will see that the plaintiff was not credible and that it was a meritless law suit motivated by money. Now my political opponents are peddling this story simply to undermine my candidacy by attempting to assassinate my character.”