By Scott Smith
Record Staff Writer
August 18, 2012 12:00 AM
STOCKTON - City Hall, under a provision of the federal bankruptcy code that gives debtors a bit of breathing room, has suspended 54 pending lawsuits, mostly those known as trip-and-fall cases.
But Ralph Lee White, a wealthy bail bondsman, former councilman and recent mayoral candidate, said the city has wrongly entangled him with one of those frozen decisions.
White earlier this year sued Stockton and Mayor Ann Johnston, arguing that an ambiguously worded line of the city charter means Johnston has already termed out of office. She was ineligible to seek another term, he said.
Making this argument, White lost his first round in San Joaquin County Superior Court, and he also lost his mayoral bid at the polls in June's primary election.
But White hasn't given up his fight to bring clarification to the city's charter.
He said his case shouldn't be subject to a suspension because he isn't seeking millions in recompense, like other litigants. The city is using its ailing finances as an excuse to skirt his challenge, he said.
"If the charter is our constitution, we have to follow our constitution," White said. "You can't put a stay on our constitution."
White and the Stockton Black Leadership Council originally brought the suit, citing problems they saw in Section 606 of the charter, which dictates term limits. It says:
"No person elected as either Mayor or Councilmember shall be eligible to serve, or serve, as either Mayor or Councilmember for more than two (2) terms ... ."
Johnston, who declined to comment, has served two terms on the City Council and now seeks a second term as mayor.
Superior Court Judge Lesley Holland heard the case in May and ruled in Johnston's favor, while criticizing the charter's language as being less than clear.
After White's courtroom defeat, his attorney, Michael Babitzke, who declined to comment, filed a new writ of mandate under the names of another failed mayoral candidate, Gregory Pitsch, and four other residents.
And then the city on June 28 filed bankruptcy. Officials shortly thereafter invoked the court stays.
City Attorney John Luebberke defended the move against White, saying this provision of the bankruptcy code is to be construed broadly.
The city is not arbitrarily selecting to temporarily stop White's suit or any of the others, he said.
"We're not using it. It's the law," Luebberke said. "We can't pick and choose."
Rather, the city filed notices to let the relevant judges, litigants and their attorneys know of the provision halting the cases. The city has to pay to defend the case, creating a financial burden, Luebberke said, refuting White's claim that his suit doesn't have financial ramifications.
Most of those suspended in Stockton's bankruptcy are tort cases, like trip-and-fall lawsuits filed against the city. Others include employee-related litigation and those arising from scuffles people have had with police officers, Luebberke said.
Among the suits also on hold is one filed by former Deputy City Attorney Lori Whittaker, who in 2009 accused then-Stockton City Attorney Ren Nocky of sexual harassment.
Another stay applies to the city's legal battle with the Stockton Police Officers' Association over millions in pay cuts the city imposed on its officers. But the association's Sacramento attorney, David E. Mastagni, said police had no problem with the suspension.
"We're working with the city to get a contract," he said. "We agreed to have ... the whole case stayed."
But White, who suspects foul play is at work in his case, may have a good argument, said Riverside attorney Franklin Adams, a partner of Best Best & Krieger LLP.
The bankruptcy code allows for stays on certain cases to prevent a rush by creditors to the courthouse with everybody wanting to collect. Adams said that based on his limited knowledge of the case, White wants a ruling on the city charter and nothing more.
"I don't think that's what the stay was intended to prevent," Adams said.
If White wanted his advice, Adams said he would suggest approaching U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Klein, who is overseeing Stockton's Chapter 9, and ask for a "comfort order."
Under such an order, White could ask the judge to send his case back to the San Joaquin County Superior Court, and then return it to the federal bankruptcy court with a resolution, Adams said.
"Some bankruptcy judges are willing to do that," he said.
White argues that if the incumbent mayor beats challenger Anthony Silva on Nov. 6, and if a court later were to rule that Johnston is ineligible to serve, the city will have the expense of holding a special election.
"I ain't asking for no money," he said. "There's no money there to be asked for."
Contact reporter Scott Smith at (209) 546-8296 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his blog at