This Bad Boss Punished a Career Prosecutor for Following Her Principles
Public prosecutors are hired to exercise unclouded legal judgment about whom to charge with a crime.
But Marlea Dell’Anno was fired for exercising such judgment, a jury found.
As a top prosecutor for the city of San Diego, Ms. Dell’Anno had enjoyed a large corner office, oversaw about 160 attorneys and staff, and reported directly to City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, a combative local politician who used his elected post to draw media attention and settle scores, according to a lawsuit.
In court filings, Ms. Dell’Anno said she ran afoul of Mr. Goldsmith by declining to prosecute flimsy cases that her boss was pushing for mostly political reasons — a battery charge against a troubled homeless man who spat at a cop, for instance.
An adviser to Mr. Goldsmith told Ms. Dell’Anno that she’d find more favor if she agreed to “get [her] hands dirty,” according to testimony. Instead, she refused more dubious requests from her boss. In response, Mr. Goldsmith stripped Ms. Dell’Anno of her staff and responsibilities and assigned her to a newly created position for “homeless related issues,” moving her office to a “filthy” room that had previously been used for storage, according to court filings.
Then, after Ms. Dell’Anno filed a complaint, Mr. Goldsmith quickly fired her — accusing her of dropping the ball on domestic violence reports. “There is absolutely no excuse” for such legal failures, Mr. Goldsmith declared to the media, which portrayed the firing as a valid punishment for Ms. Dell’Anno having “bungled” sensitive cases.
A jury ultimately found the firing to be illegal. In the meantime, however, a formerly rising star’s career lay in tatters.
Jan Goldsmith is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.
Ms. Dell’Anno sued the City of San Diego for retaliation, and earlier this year a California jury awarded her $3.9 million in damages. The judge later tacked on $1.7 million in attorney fees and costs. The city is appealing the verdict .
Being a prosecutor was Ms. Dell’Anno’s “lifelong dream,” according to court filings. After starting out as a public defender in Tulare County, in California’s Central Valley, she became a deputy district attorney for neighboring Fresno County, where she coordinated a program to manage sex offenders .
In 2009, Ms. Dell’Anno moved south to San Diego to become a deputy city attorney under Mr. Goldsmith. She was tapped to run the domestic violence unit, where she notched a 95% conviction rate. By mid-2012, she was heading the entire criminal division , according to court documents.
“My whole identity was being a prosecutor,” Ms. Dell’Anno testified. “I loved everything about being a prosecutor, and I loved my division.”
As the elected city attorney, meanwhile, Mr. Goldsmith was a veteran politician. A Republican, he had served as mayor of Poway, a small city north of San Diego, and then for three terms in the California state assembly. After an unsuccessful run for state treasurer, he served as a judge for almost a decade before being elected as San Diego’s top prosecutor of misdemeanors. (The San Diego County district attorney handles felonies, which are graver crimes.)
Court documents depict Ms. Dell’Anno’s early relationship with Mr. Goldsmith as respectful. In 2013, however, Ms. Dell’Anno attended a city council meeting and publicly answered questions about her division’s budget — too honestly for Mr. Goldsmith’s taste, according to her testimony.
In her complaint, Ms. Dell’Anno described the city attorney chewing her out in front of his entire management team and forbidding her from speaking with council members. The relationship never recovered.
The following year, an elderly homeless man was arrested while he was having a mental crisis. According to court documents, he spat on a police officer. One of Ms. Dell’Anno’s attorneys decided not to file battery charges, but the spat-upon officer appealed to Mr. Goldsmith, who was known as a vocal supporter of the police. Mr. Goldsmith, in turn, asked Ms. Dell’Anno to take a closer look .
Ms. Dell’Anno concluded that the incident — which became known as the “spit battery case” — couldn’t ethically be prosecuted. She wrote a memo to her boss explaining why, but Mr. Goldsmith disagreed and declared that he’d try the case himself, according to court documents, despite never having played such a role before.
Ms. Dell’Anno ended up winning the dispute when San Diego’s police chief told Mr. Goldsmith that her department had no intention of arresting the elderly man.
Hoping to mend fences, Ms. Dell’Anno sought advice around this time from Gerry Braun, a former journalist who was hired by Mr. Goldsmith to manage public relations — and who was known around the office as the “Jan whisperer,” according to filings.
Mr. Braun’s advice cut straight to the point: Mr. Goldsmith “wants you to get your hands dirty,” he advised, according to Ms. Dell’Anno’s complaint. “If you would just get your hands dirty, they would let you in the room.”
A litmus test came quickly. In court documents, Ms. Dell’Anno described a gleeful Mr. Goldsmith calling her into his office with a plan to “get” one of his political enemies — Cory Briggs, a local attorney who ran for the city attorney position.
Mr. Briggs’ supposed criminal offense: Authorizing other people to sign legal pleadings with his electronic signature. When Ms. Dell’Anno told Mr. Goldsmith that she didn’t see it as a prosecutable matter, “she could see the happiness draining from his face, replaced by anger,” according to filings.
In another showdown, Ms. Dell’Anno said in her complaint, Mr. Goldsmith asked her to use a civil subpoena to fish for evidence against a newspaper he wanted to charge criminally; again, she refused. (In filings, Mr. Goldsmith said he had no memory of this.)
Perhaps the last straw was a pair of performance evaluations. Two attorneys got bad ratings from their managers, who worked in turn for Ms. Dell’Anno. The employees sought help directly from Mr. Goldsmith, who asked Ms. Dell’Anno to yank the evaluations from their personnel files, according to testimony — a request she refused, citing state law and the fact that one of the attorneys was the subject of an ongoing internal investigation.
Shortly after, Mr. Goldsmith took action: He shifted Ms. Dell’Anno out of her plum job and into what she described in court documents as a “fict[it]ious position” that included the creation of what Mr. Goldsmith called a “Homeless Court.” She went from supervising 160 people to supervising no one, according to filings, and was assigned a small, dirty office that used to be a storage room .
Ms. Dell’Anno immediately blasted the move as retaliation, calling it “the most professionally and personally devasting event of my twenty-year career” in an email that also informed Mr. Goldsmith that she had hired counsel and filed an employment complaint.
Plus, she noted: “Your actions have had a direct and profound impact on my health and as a result, I have been placed on leave by my doctor.”
The following morning, according to documents filed in the case, Mr. Goldsmith emailed his head of human resources: “My intent is to fire her today.” Told that this would be seen as illegal retaliation, he instead said Ms. Dell’Anno should be fired after she returned from medical leave, according to filings.
And she was, about three weeks later, by which time Mr. Goldsmith had found a reason: Mishandling her portfolio of misdemeanor domestic violence complaints, a matter that hadn’t been raised before her leave.
In court documents, each side tells a different story about these cases. An attorney in Ms. Dell’Anno’s division evidently had allowed the statute of limitations to lapse on some misdemeanor complaints without action, and without informing the alleged victims.
According to Ms. Dell’Anno, she followed protocol, investigated the problem, and properly informed Mr. Goldsmith’s management team. But Mr. Goldsmith testified that the matter never reached his level — even though evidence showed that, during the investigation he convened during Ms. Dell’Anno’s absence, he had found two old memos that “apparently not much was done about.”
The reason for this communication failing is unknown, but in any case, court documents and news articles show that Mr. Goldsmith fired only two people: Ms. Dell’Anno and the lower-level attorney responsible for the cases. The junior attorney quickly found another prosecutor job — pursuing felony crimes, in fact — but Ms. Dell’Anno was shut out based on what she claimed in court documents was a smear campaign by “one or more high ranking officials and/or employees at the City Attorney’s office.”
She also was damaged by Mr. Goldsmith’s savvy media spin, including a story in the prominent San Diego Union-Tribune , according to testimony. While the newspaper quoted Mr. Goldsmith as “declin[ing] to identify the lawyers involved [in] a confidential personnel matter,” it also said four unnamed sources confirmed that Ms. Dell’Anno had been held responsible for “98 bungled cases .”
By her own account, Ms. Dell’Anno became unemployable as a prosecutor, and at one point considered turning to teaching to support her three children as a single mother. “It became pretty clear that I was being blackballed in the legal community,” she said in a deposition.
Ultimately, she opened her own law practice instead. In the interim she survived on loans and savings; her income for 2016, the year after her termination, was just $7,500, she testified. In 2021, an expert found that Ms. Dell’Anno still hadn’t “reached parity with her pre-termination earning capacity.”
In total, the jury in the case said, the former prosecutor’s economic loss due to Mr. Goldsmith’s actions had reached about $734,000 by the time of the trial — and would amount to a further $2.66 million in the future.
It awarded her a further $500,000 for physical and emotional damage.
In their verdict, the jurors confirmed that Ms. Dell’Anno wouldn’t have been fired if she hadn’t raised concerns about the spit battery case, the attempt to charge Mr. Briggs, and the request to remove the evaluation of an attorney under investigation — and that in each case Ms. Dell’Anno had “reasonable cause to believe that [Mr. Goldsmith’s requested actions] would result in … a violation of or noncompliance with” laws or rules.
Mr. Goldsmith didn’t run for reelection in 2016 due to term limits.
» Read Ms. Dell’Anno’s complaint
» Watch a news segment of Ms. Dell’Anno speaking with ABC 10 News
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Marlea Dell’Anno v. City of San Diego. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.
Ms. Dell’Anno was represented by Denning Moores APC.