Cheetahs Strippers vs. City of San Diego

Updated at 9:40 a.m. March 3, 2017

Two dozen current or former strippers from Cheetahs and Exposé clubs met in a fifth-floor conference room Thursday to entertain possible settlements in their lawsuit against the City of San Diego and Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman.

Dan Gilleon answers questions on the case alongside former Cheetahs dancer Renee L. (enter) and Mallory M. Photo by Ken Stone

But after three hours in downtown federal court, they broke for lunch with no hope of reaching an immediate deal in the 2 1/2-year-old case.

“I’m fairly certain there won’t be [a settlement] today,” said Marlea Dell’Anno, a member of the San Diego legal team representing 30 dancers who police photographed half-naked in July 2013 and March 2014 “inspection” raids.

Gerry Braun, a spokesman for City Attorney Mara Elliott, told Times of San Diego: “We are barred from discussing anything that occurred in the confidential Mandatory Settlement Conference.”

But he signaled that further talks are futile.

“We expect this case will go to trial in September 2018,” Braun said via email.

Dell’Anno reacted to Braun’s assertion with surprise and anger.

“If he’s telling you it’s going to trial, well, Gerry Braun I guess is telling us that any settlement negotiations are really … a fraud.”

Summoning the women to court from as far away as Ohio, Dell’Anno said, “was meant to do nothing other than to intimidate and harass them, and cause them financial hardship.”

The city has no intentions of settling this case, she said, “which is exactly what we thought.”

Dancers’ attorney Dan Gilleon, who met with TV crews before the 9 a.m. start of the settlement talks, said: “This case is not about money” to compensate women for “humiliation and degradation.”

Instead, he said the “mass tort” case was about San Diego Municipal Code section 33.0103, which lets officers conduct inspections during business hours of police-regulated businesses.

The code section is written badly, Gilleon said. Police treat the women like gang members, and violate their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures, he said. The women also allege they were held against their will.

“To me, it’s like a little travel ban all over again,” Gilleon said, since it involves a judge inspecting a law with doubtful constitutionality.

Moreover, the 20-year attorney said an earlier court order* indicated that the San Diego laws violated the Fourth Amendment.

In a March 2016 ruling, the previous judge in the case — James Lorenz — said “construing plaintiffs’ allegations as true, the court finds that the search and seizure at issue here went beyond the ‘reasonable inspection’ provided for by the Municipal Code.”

Before heading into the courthouse, two dancers — 30-year-old Mallory M. of Carlsbad and 24-year-old Renee L. of Reno, Nevada — shared their thoughts with local TV cameras.

Mallory, a single mom, is a four-year dancer at Cheetahs, and still works there. Renee, also a four-year entertainer, no longer works at the club.

“It takes this level of courage for [these two women] to come forward,” Gilleon said.

Judge Schopler, who didn’t make a court appearance in the case Thursday, was said to be acting as a mediator, with aides shuttling between separate conference rooms holding the opposing legal teams.

Deputy City Attorney Pamela Chalk and several police officers, including Assistant Chief Chuck Kaye, were in another conference room down the hall in the quiet Edward J. Schwartz U.S. Courthouse on Broadway.

Asked whether settlement talks would be pursued today if Jan Goldsmith were still city attorney — instead of newly elected Mara Elliott — Gilleon said: “I don’t think so.”

“They’d like this resolved,” he said of the city. “It’s the biggest headache in the world. … It’s going to cost the taxpayers a ton of money. For what?”

If the case goes to trial, Gilleon said, he’ll argue that police made the dancers feel like second-class citizens — which won’t play well with female jurors.

Before Braun’s statement came to light, Gilleon colleague Steve Hoffman said he looked to “reconvening” settlement talks in the future.

Dell’Anno, the fired former assistant city attorney now working with Gilleon (and suing the city herself), said at lunch break that the judge was “very fair” during the talks.

“That’s his job,” she said. “And he’s looking to do the right thing. That’s all we want.”

Thursday night on the phone, she added: “The violations that these women were subjected to — it was nothing less than sexual assault. It was false imprisonment.”

Dell’Anno said she had hoped that new City Attorney Elliott would take a fresh look at the case.

“I just have a hard time understanding how any rational human being could look at what happened to these women and say anything other than: ‘I’m sorry. Let me try to make it right.’”

*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the judge told the city it violated the Fourth Amendment.