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Judge trims mayor’s liability in wrongful termination lawsuit

A U.S. district judge late last month whittled down the number of claims against Mayor Alan Arakawa in his personal capacity in a wrongful termination lawsuit brought by former Film Commissioner Harry Donenfeld.

U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson on Dec. 28 ruled on a motion asking for the dismissal of seven of the 10 claims against Arakawa personally. The judge dismissed six of the claims and upheld one, which alleges the mayor interfered with a contractual claim.

Arakawa’s personal attorneys did not address claims of defamation, denial of constitutional and civil rights and negligence in the original lawsuit in its recent court motion.

Donenfeld, who was hired in August 2011 to serve as county film commissioner, was fired in September 2013. In his lawsuit, Donenfeld claimed his dismissal was to appease Hollywood movie mogul Ryan Kavanaugh and not — as claimed by Arakawa — because he failed to show up at work.

His wrongful termination and defamation lawsuit seeks unspecified “general, special, consequential, compensatory, double, treble, exemplary and/or punitive damages”; pre- and post-judgment interest; and attorneys’ fees and costs.

It is the federal discrimination claims that made the federal court in Honolulu a more appropriate place to file the lawsuit, his attorneys said.

The named defendants are Maui County and Arakawa, as mayor and personally.

The county had no comment on Watson’s ruling, saying that it covered Arakawa’s role in his personal — not his official — capacity. Arakawa’s personal attorney, former Attorney General David Louie, had no comment on the ruling Tuesday.

The mayor’s attorneys had asked that seven claims be dismissed, three of which Donenfeld’s attorneys agreed with. The dismissed claims against the mayor personally included wrongful termination, privacy violations, breach of contract and other claims.

All of those claims remain intact with the mayor in his official capacity.

The one of the seven claims that Watson refused to dismiss involved Arakawa in his personal capacity and interfering with the contract between Donenfeld and the county. The interference with contractual relations claim focuses on Donenfeld’s allegations that he was terminated by the mayor “to maintain his close personal ties with and funding from Kavanaugh,” the ruling noted.

Donenfeld’s lawsuit said that Kavanaugh made contributions to Arakawa’s campaign and his nonprofit Kokua Fund. He claimed that Kavanaugh threatened to withdraw his support for Arakawa unless the mayor fired Donenfeld, of whom the movie mogul was critical.

Assuming that these allegations are true, which the court said it is required to at this stage of the lawsuit, there is sufficient support for the claim that Arakawa “in his personal capacity, acted with self-interest and not in furtherance of Maui County’s interests, when he allegedly caused the termination of Donenfeld,” Watson wrote.

One of Donenfeld’s attorneys, Grant Allison, said that they consider Watson’s ruling “a victory for us.” Another of his attorneys, Mike Carroll, said that a trial date has been set for Oct. 10.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.