Judge Dismisses Sexual Harassment Suit Against Sheriff With Prejudice

Prieto-Sheriff

Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto has been accused of sexual harassment in a series of civil suits against him – one by one they have been dismissed. Last week, Federal Court Judge Kimberly Mueller, granted the sheriff’s motion for summary judgment, ending a recent lawsuit.

Two years ago, another longtime female sheriff’s deputy in Yolo County filed suit, alleging that Sheriff Ed Prieto subjected her “to protracted sexual harassment, culminating in his offer to trade an assignment for oral sex.”

Robin Gonzalez claimed in a federal lawsuit filed in July 2013 that the alleged conduct had continued for almost her entire 11 years under Sheriff Prieto’s command.

The allegations included uninvited and unwanted attention. She claims that the sheriff had hugged and kissed her, cradled her buttocks in his hands, pinched other parts of her body, gave lewd stares, made repeated observations regarding her appearance and weight, and made remarks laced with sexual innuendo.

The alleged conduct culminated with a suggestion that the deputy could continue as an investigator “if she performed oral sex on him.”

Ms. Gonzalez reported the behavior finally to HR Director Mindi Nunes, who allegedly “told her there was not much her office could do because Prieto is an elected official.”

Ms. Nunes did look into the matter and found at least some of her grievances were justified, and Sheriff Prieto had promised to avoid contact and conversation with Ms. Gonzalez. Instead, she alleged that the sheriff had continued the actions that have created a “hellish working environment” for her, and her fear of retaliation became a reality in various ways.

The sheriff declined response.  However, Attorney Cori Sarno with Kilday & Kilduff, who represents Mr. Prieto and Yolo County, said, “This lawsuit is a bogus attempt to extort money from the county (a co-defendant in the suit) by making false, inflammatory claims against the sheriff.”

Ms. Sarno adds, “The county has looked into Deputy Gonzalez’s claims by hiring an independent investigator who interviewed quite a few people in the department and found no evidence to support her claims.”

This was the third such lawsuit against the Sheriff since early 2012. All of them have now been dismissed.

Ms. Gonzales filed complaints on January 14, 2013. According to the ruling, she “agrees Prieto’s conduct in 2013 and 2014 has been appropriate.” Her judicial complaint alleges three claims: “(1) sexual harassment under Title VII; (2) sexual harassment under the FEHA; and (3) failure to prevent sexual harassment under the FEHA. She seeks compensatory, general, special, and punitive damages, her costs, and her attorneys’ fees.”

The defendants argue Gonzalez’s claims must fail because “(1) neither her Title VII nor FEHA claim was timely; (2) the County cannot be held liable for the Sheriff’s conduct because he is an elected official and not an employee; (3) the County undertook reasonable efforts to prevent and address sexual harassment, and Gonzalez unreasonably ignored its procedures meant to protect her; (4) the County had no notice of any hostile work environment created by her coworkers; (5) Gonzalez has not made out a prima facie case of retaliation; and (6) Gonzalez has not put forward evidence the County failed to prevent a violation of the FEHA.”

The court notes that summary judgment is appropriate when “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”

It is important to understand that “most of the facts underlying Gonzalez’s claims here are not disputed. Although the defendants deny most of Gonzalez’s allegations of harassment, they do not dispute them for purposes of this motion.”

This is critical for understanding the judge’s ruling when she writes, on page 12, that “although Gonzalez contends only a few incidents of harassment occurred within the limitations period, these few may anchor a continuing practice of harassment if each constituent event was part of the same practice. There can be no genuine dispute, however, that Prieto’s conduct changed after the County’s intervention in June and November 2010. The parties agree he never hugged, kissed, pinched, or touched Gonzalez after November 2010, and never again did he offer her professional advantage in return for sexual favors.”

Ms. Gonzalez made two internal complaints in 2010, and each time, the county’s director of HR addressed these complaints.

After 2012, only a few allegations remain. For instance, Ms. Gonzalez alleged that in 2012, the sheriff stared at her lewdly during a briefing. “Sheriff Prieto told me that I looked good and that I had lost weight. He stared at my body in a sexual manner.

Writes the judge, “Even when construed in the light most favorable to Gonzalez, these accounts describe no objectively sexual color in Prieto’s behavior,” the judge writes.

However, despite allegations that “[i]n 2012, Prieto’s conduct included looking Gonzalez ‘up and down a couple times’ on only two occasions, both in public when many other people were present. He commended her for losing weight, asked her how much weight she had lost, and told her she ‘looked great.’ From Gonzalez’s perspective, he looked at her ‘like [she] had no clothes on’ and ‘stared at [her] chest and hips in a sexual manner.’”

The judge finds that “Gonzalez describes no objective basis for her belief that Prieto’s looks were sexual, let alone enough to create a ‘hostile or abusive’ employment environment.” The judge notes that no witness is provided who also believed that the Sheriff’s glances “were overtly sexual or inappropriate.”

Ms. Gonzalez also complains that her coworkers teased her, but only “as evidence of Prieto’s harassment and the county’s awareness of it” and “Gonzalez’s peers and supervisors were aware of Prieto’s harassment of her.” In her complaint she wrote, “It became such common knowledge that Prieto would hug and kiss Gonzalez that other deputies would warn her to go out the back door when Prieto was approaching.”

The judge, however, notes that even if her coworkers did tease her, “Coworker teasing is not normally sufficient to state a claim for a hostile work environment under Title VII.”

The judge, with regard to retaliation, notes, “Gonzalez has not introduced evidence of any adverse employment action in retaliation for her complaint. She has suggested only that Prieto retaliated against her in 2012 by calling the claims against him ‘bullshit,’ that she was not invited to a volunteer honor guard event, and that she did not receive overtime pay (rather than vacation time) for attending another honor guard event.”

The judge, however, writes, “An employer does not retaliate by making dismissive comments about an employee’s claim.” She adds, “The volunteer honor guard events in question were only two, compared to many in which she participated. Gonzalez has missed honor guard events both in the past and again since the events in question, and she agrees neither Prieto nor his daughter requested her absence.”

As such, Judge Mueller ultimately ruled that, in order to qualify as an “adverse action,” the “employer’s adverse action [must] materially affect the terms and conditions of employment.” And in this case, “Gonzalez’s allegations and evidence cannot establish a triable issue of fact as to any retaliation against her. The parties agree the terms and conditions of her employment remained unchanged after she reported Prieto’s comments and actions.”

The bottom line here is that, while the parties remain in dispute as to whether the conduct happened – in particular prior to 2010, even if the plaintiff’s allegations were true (which is vehemently disputed by the sheriff), the case had no merit in terms of a continuing hostile work environment or retaliation.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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22 Comments

  1. zaqzaq

    It is well past time for Prieto to retire.  With the number of complaints if there is smoke there must be a fire.  Just look at the Cosby situation.  It is time for” Big Ed” do us all a favor and ride into the sunset.

  2. Tia Will

    She has suggested only that Prieto retaliated against her in 2012 by calling the claims against him “bullshit,”

    I fail to see how publicly referring to claims by someone under one’s supervision as “bullshit” could not be considered as contributing to a hostile work environment. What this amounts to is claiming that the individual is lying, which could certainly undermine their credibility in the view of their coworkers thus contributing to a hostile work environment.

    I make no claim whatsoever as to the validity of the sexual harassment claims. But as a supervisor, I think it is clear that Sheriff Prieto handled this situation in a less than professional manner and that he did breech principles of compliance by publicly contributing to the creation of a hostile work environment. I also feel that when behavior has reached the point that an individual is being “teased” about unwanted attention from a superior, that this clearly constitutes a hostile work environment for the employee if for no other reason than it perpetuates a work disturbance and distraction regarding an issue not under the control of the employee.

    1. David Greenwald

      “I fail to see how publicly referring to claims by someone under one’s supervision as “bullshit” could not be considered as contributing to a hostile work environment. ”

      Tia: The judge explained why it wasn’t – she used case law and statutory definitions.

  3. hpierce

    “What this amounts to is claiming that the individual is lying.”  Ok.  If someone accuses you of inappropriate/illegal acts against them, which you know/believe you did not do, and they do so in a manner that it is likely to be ‘public’ in the work environment, you can’t repudiate the allegations? And if you do repudiate it publicly, that is creating a”hostile work environment’? Nice.

      1. David Greenwald

        My view is actually the same. There were at least three accusations against Prieto – none of them substantiated and all of them dismissed, most of them early in the process.

    1. Tia Will

      hpierce

      It is certainly possible to repudiate without calling the other person a liar. It is always possible to state that you believe that they are in error and/or to state your version of events.

      However, as a supervisor, one is held to a higher standard than those we supervise in what to take public, and what to handle through appropriate HR and legal processes. I do not believe that it is appropriate for a supervisor to make statements to employees they supervise about allegations made by another employee. And I say this as just having completed my annual compliance review requirement yesterday.

       

      1. hpierce

        “Calling BS” is not equal to “calling someone a liar”.  You can call BS if someone repeats something that is untrue, even if the other, from incorrect facts, delusions, etc., believes the assertation to be true.  At least to me, “calling BS” is denying the assertion, not an attack on the individual.  Perhaps he should have publically said, “I understand that you believe that, but please understand hat I do not share that belief”?

        Oh, Tia, please understand that anyone in the Co Sherriff’s office ‘grapevine’, fully knew of the ‘allegation’, and many would have gotten an “embellished” version.

  4. Tia Will

    hpierce

    Perhaps he should have publically said, “I understand that you believe that, but please understand hat I do not share that belief”?”

    I believe that as a supervisor, this is exactly how he should have phrased his comment. While I agree that calling BS is not synonymous with saying that someone is lying as my comment implied, it is a rude and non supportive means of expression and while I feel it is appropriate between family, friends, or peers, I find it highly inappropriate for a supervisor to use this expression with regard to the statements of a subordinate in public.

    1. hpierce

      Ok… someone ‘arguably’ (or actually) innocent of a career-ending allegation needs to “support” the accuser.  Not just not deny the allegation (except thru HR/legal processes), but be ‘supportive’ of the accuser.  And, based on the previous thoughts you’ve espoused, be paid the same for that “nobility”.  Just not buying what you’re selling.  Guess we need to agree to disagree.

      I know for a fact that I could not be as detached/noble if I was wrongfully accused by a subordinate.

    2. PhilColeman

      Can we even be marginally confident that Prieto said any of the comments ascribed to him? They were part of the allegation package, but anywhere else? They were not substantiated by later trial proceedings because none occurred.

      There was county investigation by an outside investigator. It’s unclear to me how incriminating the findings of the investigation were, if at all. It’s unclear if the federal judge was given the county investigation as part of the request for summary judgment. Based on all published summary findings, is there any “smoking gun” other than the extraordinary 3 federal lawsuits for the same alleged behavior?

      This was a summary judgment, a legal slam-dunk for the defense. This happens very seldom as no magistrate wants to be characterized as “taking the matter out of the jury’s hands,” or denying plaintiffs “their day in court.” Suing an elected public official in federal court is really a big deal with lots of public awareness. This was really a bad day for the plaintiff law firm.

  5. Biddlin

    You guys elected him, at some point. He ran unopposed last time. The entire nation seems to know that he’s a cowboy, so find a new guy who isn’t so “institutionalised” yet.

    ;>)/

  6. Davis Progressive

    prieto is definitely old school, but i don’t understand this wave of unsubstantiated attacks on him.  i guess most of you don’t remember the world of the sheriff’s office prior to prieto, but let me say, he has cleaned it up far more than he apparently gets credit for.

    1. Davis Progressive

      that appears to be correct, but we have no way of knowing the accuracy of the claims as the judge dismissed it due to timeliness as well as remedied by hr.

  7. Frankly

    What a waste of taxpayer money using the court system to vet claims of de minimis harm by a hypersensitive and vindictive employee.  It also appears that the judge’s ruling implicates lying by the employee.

    This is where we have landed trying to protect employees from true sexual harassment and true hostile work environment.  It reminds me growing up when one of my brothers would demand that mom intervene and punish the other for “looking at him weird.”

    1. Davis Progressive

      so let me ask – what is the appropriate method for investigating and redressing legitimate complaints and how do you ferret out meritous versus unmeritous complaints prior to the fact?

    2. Miwok

      Frankly, I have been a subject of things like this, not sexual harassment, but accounting behaviors. When I presented my case of inadequate controls, and violations of policy, I was accused of stealing, racial epithets, insubordination (for not violating Policy) and eventually “laid off”.

      The Employers gave the violators, after auditors got done with them, a slap on the wrist, and they kept their job while taking mine away. I could not “prove” my case either. Being related to the people making this determination did not seem to matter to the upstanding professionals in charge. Boy, was I confused.

      All the meetings when they used to get me in a room and say things they would deny later was another thing I could not “Prove”. Maybe you run your business with more integrity. That has not been my experience, in public or private enterprises. I have a lot of sympathy for the comment bout being warned to go out the back door, then fellow officers claim nothing.

      In my case, they were eventually found out, but said they were sorry and went to counseling. It took more people to come forward and challenge them.

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