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Updated at 8:45 p.m. March 1, 2017

Four years after San Diego police first raided Cheetahs strip club in Kearny Mesa, a settlement may be at hand in the legal fight between the city and club dancers — avoiding a jury trial sought by both.

Cheetahs strip club in Kearny Mesa. Image via
Cheetahs strip club in Kearny Mesa. Image via

U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Schopler has summoned both sides, including nearly 30 women photographed half-naked by police, to downtown federal court at 8 a.m. Thursday for a “mandatory settlement conference.”

At a Jan. 11 status conference, the City Attorney’s Office asked for a settlement meeting, says Dan Gilleon, a San Diego attorney suing the city and Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman on behalf of entertainers with only first names spelled out.

“No settlement offers have been made by the city so far,” Gilleon told Times of San Diego on Tuesday. “The documents [requested by the court] are settlement conference briefs, and per the court’s local rules, they’re confidential.”

Wednesday afternoon, a spokesman for new City Attorney Mara Elliott disputed that the city asked for the Thursday conference.

“The Mandatory Settlement Conference was called by the Magistrate Judge, the Hon. Andrew G. Schopler, who took over the Cheetahs matters in September 2016,” said Gerry Braun, the spokesman. “Both parties are treated identically in MSCs; it is not incumbent on one or the other to make an offer, though both should act in good faith.”

Zimmerman won’t be in court Thursday, thanks to a successful motion by city lawyers including Elliott.

But Schopler said Zimmerman must be available by telephone if needed.

Representing the city are Deputy City Attorney Pamela Chalk and Charlie Hopper, a claims representative from the city’s Risk Management Department with authority to negotiate settlement, said a city motion.

Dan Andrews, an investigator in the City Attorney’s Civil Litigation Division, also will attend, the motion says.

Police defendants set for court Thursday are Kevin Moyna, Perry McCiver, Dan Plei and Assistant Chief Chuck Kaye.

“Ms. Chalk will be prepared to recommend any settlement that may be reached, if appropriate, to the government official(s) having ultimate settlement authority, as required by the City Charter and related codes and regulations,” said the city’s motion on behalf of Zimmerman.

The City Attorney’s Office didn’t respond Tuesday to a request for comment. A trial had been expected for late February 2018.

Amended complaint of April 7, 2015, against the city and Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman (PDF)
Amended complaint of April 7, 2015, against the city and Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman (PDF)

Raids at Cheetahs on July 15, 2013, and at Cheetahs and nearby Exposé on March 6, 2014, threw a national spotlight on San Diego police tactics — raising questions about constitutional rights and whether the dancers were held against their will.

In 2013, the civil suit alleges, about 15 San Diego police officers raided Cheetahs, wearing sidearms and bulletproof vests.

“Officers at the doors ordered entertainers who were arriving at Cheetahs to go to the dressing room, change into bra and panties and wait to be photographed and interrogated,” says the April 2015 amended suit seeking monetary damages that could total $1.5 million.

“Certain … officers made arrogant and demeaning comments to the entertainers, and ordered them to expose body parts so that they could ostensibly photograph their tattoos.”

The city admits that 10 officers in civilian clothing, some wearing holstered side arms and wearing protective vests, identified themselves as police.

“Immediately upon their arrival, the inspection team told Cheetah’s security personnel and managers why they were there; some officers were stationed outside the building’s exits and directed employees trying to leave to return for inspection; and female officers in the entertainers’ locker room checked the entertainers’ identification cards and information and photographed their faces and some tattoos,” said the city’s legal answer.

San Diego's answer to complaint filed May 25, 2016 (PDF)
San Diego’s answer to complaint filed May 25, 2016 (PDF)

But the city denied any “unlawful, unconstitutional or otherwise wrongful conduct.”

In March 2014, police Lt. Kevin Mayer issued a statement to 10 News in which he said the Police Department’s Vice Unit conducts random inspections of strip clubs to ensure dancers are complying with city laws and that they have an entertainers permit.

“In most cases, Vice Unit detectives do not require or request clubs to shut down,” Mayer said. “Photographs of the entertainers’ permit and the person in possession of it are taken for investigative purposes.”

Separately, the city moved to revoke the adult-entertainment license for Cheetahs Gentlemen’s Club, citing violations by dancers noted by undercover officers.

In July 2015, a Superior Court judge upheld the license-yanking, and last September a three-justice panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal agreed, calling the nude club’s violations of a no-touching rule “ongoing, blatant.”

Cheetahs continues to operate, however, and its website still seeks dancers.

“Ladies, if you are interested in gracing San Diego’s best nude strip club with your beauty, the following information will help you get started,” says the site.