Federal Lawsuit Includes Lizzandro Diaz and Others

COACHELLA — A federal lawsuit has been filed against the city of Coachella on behalf of an employee who was allegedly “isolated, targeted, and harmed” by city elected leaders and employees due to his exercise of political free speech, and due to his disability, according to the attorney who filed the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also seems to pull back the curtain on the underbelly of politics in the Coachella Valley. It is a lawsuit based on politics, betrayal, money and favor.

Megan Beaman of Palm Desert-based Beaman Jacinto Law filed the 24-page lawsuit on April 10 in U.S. District Court. She is seeking a jury trial. Beaman is a former member of the Coachella City Council. She served one term and did not seek reelection.

“As we turn toward the evidence-gathering phase of the case, we will be requesting key documents from the city, and then taking depositions of individuals most involved, including (Mayor) Steven Hernandez, (City Councilmember) Neftali Galarza, and (building official) Lizzandro Diaz,” Beaman told Uken Report.

Beaman filed the lawsuit on behalf of Chris Oppenheimer, 54, a building inspector. Diaz was his supervisor.

“(The) defendants’ discriminatory and retaliatory conduct has caused and continues causing substantial and potentially irreparable emotional damage and damage to Oppenheimer’s professional reputation as a building inspector, as have Defendant Diaz’s defamatory publications about him,” according to the lawsuit.

Additionally, the lawsuit claims that the defendants altogether failed to pay Oppenheimer’s wages for
certain overtime hours worked during his employment. Oppenheimer is a building inspector with years of experience and outstanding performance.

The City of Coachella first hired Oppenheimer in November 2019 as a Building Inspector II. The job required him to work full time on a modified Monday through Thursday schedule, ten hours per
day, with occasional additional overtime work on Fridays. The job did not require any weekend work. Part of Oppenheimer’s work was paid indirectly by developers, who reimbursed the city for his hours spent, plus administrative fees.

In approximately July 2021, Gabriel Perez was hired as Development Services Director, becoming Oppenheimer’s new supervisor. On multiple occasions from about January 2022 to present, Perez deleted, removed, disapproved, and/or otherwise caused the non-payment of hours that Oppenheimer worked, the lawsuit alleges. The hours deleted were worked beyond 40 in a week and thus constituted overtime hours. This conduct continued even after Oppenheimer reported it to Perez’s supervisor, City Manager Gabriel Martin, and Martin reprimanded Perez.

In approximately mid-2022, Oppenheimer was made aware that a Building Official position would soon be open. The Building Official position was elevated from Oppenheimer’s current position and would constitute a promotion. Oppenheimer was and is qualified for the position and was excited for the opportunity to grow in his employment with the city, according to the federal lawsuit.

Oppenheimer applied for the position on or about Aug. 31, 2022. City Manager Gabriel Martin in approximately August or September 2022 allegedly told Oppenheimer that the Building Official position was already waiting for him, and that he just needed to go through the formalities.

Councilmember Neftali Galarza and Mayor Steven Hernandez also both separately told Oppenheimer that the position was “his,” notifying him even when it was approved by the City Council for posting, according to the lawsuit.

In approximately September 2022, Ruben Gonzalez—property owner, city Planning Commissioner, brother of then-Councilmember Josie Gonzalez, and brother to the former Mayor Jesus Gonzalez—told Oppenheimer that he had advocated for Perez to be hired, and that he would discuss Oppenheimer’s
interest in the Building Official position with Perez, according to the lawsuit

Shortly after, Jesus Gonzalez—property owner, former city Mayor, brother to then-city Councilmember Josie Gonzalez—made a similar comment to Oppenheimer. He understood the comments to be implicit requests for his loyalty to Ruben Gonzalez and Jesus Gonzalez with regard to their property operations in the city of Coachella.

In approximately early October 2022, a photo began to circulate, which depicted Oppenheimer attending a political event on his personal time in support of the current mayor’s political opponent. City Manager Martin allegedly approached Oppenheimer about the photo, telling him that a councilmember had sent it to Martin and that councilmembers were unhappy about it. Oppenheimer
attempted to explain that he also attended fundraisers and events in support of the current mayor and other city representatives, but the explanation did not resolve Martin’s concerns about the councilmembers’ unhappiness.

In approximately November 2022, as part of his regular job duties and responsibilities, Oppenheimer reported to Perez that unpermitted building activity, such as the building of trenches, was occurring on a property operated by Ruben Gonzalez. Perez seemingly ignored Oppenheimer’s report. Oppenheimer had previously reported to supervisors on at least one occasion that a cannabis dispensary owned by Jesus Gonzalez was operating without proper inspections completed, and without a Certificate of Occupancy. No action was taken regarding these unlawful building activities, according to the lawsuit. Unpermitted building activities continued occurring on the properties continuously and/or from time to time, up to today.

Furthermore, or about Nov. 8, 2022, Councilmember Galarza contacted Oppenheimer. At the time, votes from the 2022 General Election were still being counted, including those cast in the very close race between two candidates for the position of Mayor to the City of Coachella. Galarza is and was a known friend and supporter of city Mayor Hernandez, who was one of the candidates on the ballot. In this conversation, Galarza asked Oppenheimer if he was supporting Hernandez’s opponent in the election. Oppenheimer confirmed that he had donated to the opponent’s campaign in his personal capacity. Galarza indicated that he was upset and offended by Oppenheimer’s personal political decisions. Galarza pushed Oppenheimer to call Hernandez to discuss the campaign donation that he made.

Hernandez ultimately won the position of Mayor for an additional two-year term, In November 2022 and thereafter — following his reports of unpermitted building activity and his conversations with Martin and Galarza, Oppenheimer observed and experienced an escalation in retaliatory conduct against him, causing him to feel that he was under a microscope, and that the city was attempting to
force him to quit or to find an excuse to terminate him, the lawsuit alleges.

In approximately mid-November 2022, the Building Official position was posted for external candidates, signaling to Oppenheimer for the first time that the city may intend to pass over him for the position. According to the lawsuit, when the city interviewed Oppenheimer for the Building Official position, the interview panel asked him irrelevant questions about types of building not currently being done in the city of Coachella, which appeared to be designed solely to cause him confusion.

The city thereafter hired an external candidate as Building Official, despite earlier assurances that Oppenheimer would be promoted to the position.

In approximately late February or early March 2023, Perez began to cut back on Oppenheimer’s hours, causing him to lose significant overtime hours and pay, according to the lawsuit. These hours cut included hours which are reimbursed by developers and create no cost to the city. Oppenheimer furthermore overheard and/or learned from co-workers that Perez made disparaging comments about him on various occasions, with the apparent attempt to damage his reputation and relationships with co-workers and other professional contacts.

On approximately April 10, 2023, Oppenheimer’s supervisors told him for the first time that Perez would now require Oppenheimer to complete a form regarding his part-time weekend work performing private home inspections, and that Perez would be empowered to deny Oppenheimer the ability to perform that private work on his own time. At the time he was interviewed and then hired in 2019, Oppenheimer disclosed his weekend inspection work to ensure that it would not present any conflict with the position. The City Manager and Development Services Director who interviewed him assured him that it would not, and he continued to perform that work occasionally on weekends after being
hired.

Oppenheimer was and is aware that his direct supervisor, Lizzandro Diaz, provides his personal business card to developers even while on city time, according to the lawsuit.

On April 24, 2023, Oppenheimer filed a government claim with the city of Coachella, reflecting the facts and incidents outlined above.

Immediately following this filing, Oppenheimer once again experienced a noticeable escalation in retaliatory activity toward him, which continues virtually unabated up to today, according to the lawsuit. Perez, Diaz, and even Martin began an all-out campaign against Oppenheimer, including harassing acts and adverse actions such as: ignoring him while greeting other employees; purposely excluding him from office activities (i.e. co-worker birthday celebrations, office excursion); excluding
him from mass communications on which he was previously included; providing him with a false negative performance review; failing to implement his step increase; failing to accommodate his disability restrictions; assigning him to menial, demeaning, and/or unethical tasks; sharing his private
health information with other employees; monitoring his standing and sitting activities; reprimanding and humiliating him in front of other employees; and more, according to the lawsuit.

By all accounts, the city was and is searching for a way to terminate Oppenheimer and/or force him to resign, the lawsuit states.

At times, the retaliation became so intolerable that Oppenheimer suffered extreme symptoms of anxiety and trauma, leading him to seek and receive medical care. His physician ordered him on disability leave of absence briefly in July and August 2023 due to the impacts.

On or about July 20, 2023, Oppenheimer’s doctor ordered him on modified duty due to his foot condition, which includes limitations on walking, standing, and climbing. On July 24, 2023, Diaz emailed Oppenheimer regarding his modifications and the city’s purported willingness to accommodate them at work.

However, Diaz in fact outwardly and intentionally violated Oppenheimer’s work restrictions at every turn, while also increasing his assignment to menial, demeaning tasks. For example, Diaz assigned Oppenheimer to go through dozens of old building plans, some of which weighed over 20 pounds, lug them around the office, and review them to ensure whether they have been scanned into Laserfiche storage. Diaz further refused to allow Oppenheimer to use the larger conference room space to review the unwieldy and heavy plan documents, forcing him to uncomfortably and tediously review them in his cramped office space—even though other staff are permitted to use the conference room on an
ongoing basis.

On Aug. 9, 2023, Diaz called Oppenheimer into his office in an aggressive manner, read Oppenheimer’s entire job description to him, and, in reference to his work restrictions, asked him angrily what part of the job description he has a problem with. Oppenheimer responded that he did not feel comfortable with the way Diaz was treating him and that he felt he was under a microscope. Diaz responded that he did not care to talk about anything with Oppenheimer other than his alleged unwillingness to follow his job description. Oppenheimer feared to discuss the matter any further with Diaz, and asked to have his attorney or a union representative present.

On Aug. 11, 2023, Oppenheimer transmitted a letter to the city requesting that it immediately cease and desist retaliation, identifying many of the facts outlined in the lawsuit. Nonetheless, the conduct persisted, the lawsuit claims.

On or about Aug. 24, 2023, a former colleague contacted Oppenheimer to let him know that the city had been asking questions about him and his overtime work at the city.

On or about Aug. 28, 2023, Oppenheimer learned from a city employee that the city director of human resources, Sandy Krause, had requested a report of the GPS from Oppenheimer’s work truck for the last year. The employee told Oppenheimer that the reports only go back three months, and that he confirmed to Krause that there was nothing in the log out of the norm.

On Sept. 11, 2023, Diaz brought Oppenheimer into his office and repeatedly questioned him about why he was unable to return to unrestricted work duties. Diaz asked the same questions several times, in a very condescending and accusatory fashion, while Oppenheimer repeatedly explained that his next doctor appointment was three days later, which was the soonest available, and that the modified duty should still apply because he was not physically able to work without restrictions. Diaz took
notes, then asked Oppenheimer to leave the office, according to the lawsuit.

On Sept. 19, 2023, Krause and Diaz convened a meeting purported to discuss Oppenheimer’s restrictions, which had been updated by a doctor’s order of Sept. 14, 2023, to require sedentary duties. In that meeting, Krause interrogated Mr. Oppenheimer about what he does at home and how he personally implements the sedentary work restriction at home. Krause also repeatedly assured Oppenheimer that his restrictions will be accommodated.

Krause documented the meeting on Sept. 20, 2023, in a purported summary which misrepresented key facts, including a reference to Diaz’s aggressive Aug. 9 meeting with Oppenheimer as a similar interactive process meeting.

Oppenheimer subsequently wrote an email to Krause, clarifying his experience of the Aug. 9 meeting. This communication constituted a report or complaint of workplace discrimination. In response, Kraus apparently met with Diaz to extensively document his contentions regarding the Aug. 9 meeting, then reported to Oppenheimer her adoption of Diaz’s contentions as facts on Oct. 11, 2023, once again disregarding and discrediting his report without any further investigation.

On or about Oct. 30, 2023, Diaz called Oppenheimer into his office once again to present him with a series of pretextual criticisms, indicating that Diaz continued to look for any reason to isolate, discipline, and/or terminate Oppenheimer. The meeting moreover revealed that Diaz had been stalking Oppenheimer’s whereabouts via his city vehicle GPS (and finding no violations in
so doing), even while Oppenheimer was on COVID-19 sick leave.

On Nov. 1, 2023, Oppenheimer stepped outside for a phone appointment from his medical provider. When he returned to his desk, Diaz confronted and scolded him, saying that he did not want to see him standing or walking during work hours. Even after Oppenheimer explained that he was on a call with his doctor, Diaz continued to scold him for standing and walking, in preposterous reference to Oppenheimer’s sedentary work restriction.

Additionally, Diaz on multiple occasions spoke to other city employees about Oppenheimer’s doctor-ordered work restrictions and private medical information, even to those employees who had no need to know, and told employees in an aggressive and insulting way that Oppenheimer was not allowed to be seen standing, walking, or otherwise anywhere outside his seated work area.

Oppenheimer is informed and believes and thereon alleges that Defendant Lizzandro Diaz has made false verbal and written statements that Oppenheimer is permanently disabled, and that Oppenheimer will never be able to return to his position and/or career.

Diaz has communicated such false information to at least one, and possibly multiple, individuals inside and/or outside of the city of Coachella staff.

The defendants’ ongoing retaliation, harassment, discrimination, and defamation toward Oppenheimer has created substantial emotional and psychological impacts on him, driving him to seek and receive medical care and medication, triggering past trauma, and otherwise causing him substantial distress, according to the lawsuit.

Moreover, it states that the defendants have rendered the environment hostile such that it would be intolerable to a reasonable person, and it is intolerable to Oppenheimer.

Image Sources

  • Lawsuit: Shutterstock