Friday June 04, 2004

City joins an expanding list
Several Southern California police departments faced harassment suits during the 1990s.

By Darleene Barrientos

GLENDALE - When a jury last year sided with three officers who sued the city for sexual harassment, Glendale became simply the next name on a growing list of Southern California cities accused of harboring hostile work environments.

Glendale's case has one major difference: Most of those cities settled out of court before the cases went to trial. Glendale took the case to trial and was ordered to pay the plaintiffs $3.5 million.

A jury agreed on June 2, 2003, that Glendale Police officers Katie Frieders, Renae Kerner and Jamie Franke were subjected to harassment, discrimination, retaliation and a hostile work environment.

The city's lawyers have battled the verdict on several fronts, including making an unsuccessful bid for a new trial. They plan to appeal the verdict itself but have not filed the court papers to do so.

Many Southern California law enforcement agencies have been accused of allowing bad behavior like inappropriate touching, dirty jokes and, at the worst, rape. Most of the lawsuits were filed in the 1990s against departments including Santa Ana, Brea, Cypress, Newport Beach, Long Beach, Los Angeles and the FBI's Orange County bureau. The alleged harassment in Glendale also occurred in the '90s, but the lawsuit was filed in 2001.

Most of the cases were settled out of court. For example, Garden Grove paid $180,000 in 1991 to a fired reserve police officer who said she was terminated for ending a romantic relationship with then-Police Chief John R. Robertson. In 1993, Long Beach paid nearly $3 million to settle a sexual-harassment lawsuit filed by two women on its force.

The fallout from a Newport Beach case included firing the 250-member department's police chief and one of his captains, then rehiring the pair so they could retire with their pensions and benefits.

Ten female Newport Beach Police Department employees sued the city in 1992, alleging that former Chief Arb Campbell and Anthony Villa Jr. sexually harassed them and discriminated against them. Dispatcher Peri Ropke accused both men of raping her at a department party in 1981. The other plaintiffs claimed Villa repeatedly subjected them to lewd and suggestive remarks, and that they were forced to watch him "manhandle" their female co-workers.

"The city put both [Campbell and Villa] on leave shortly after we filed our complaint, and ultimately, terminated both of them," said Steven Pingel, who represented the plaintiffs. The lawsuit was filed in September 1992 and settled less than six months later.

"I don't think they were fired. I think they were allowed to retire," Pingel said. "[Their leaving the department] changed the culture of the department for the better -- there was a general hostile environment."

Newport Beach hired Harold Bridges, a Pasadena lawyer, to investigate the lawsuit's allegations. He concluded that a judge "might find the conduct of a sexually harassing nature occurred," but that the plaintiffs themselves might have "engaged in sexually harassing conduct."

The case was never brought before a jury, according to reports. Each woman reportedly settled with the city for amounts ranging from $2,000 to $20,000.

Bridges defended Cypress when its first female sergeant sued the city in 1992. Sgt. Sandra Stanton claimed she was retaliated against when her male colleagues -- including her ex-husband, who was also her supervisor -- allegedly mocked her in April 1991 with a photo of a scantily clad woman. The case ended in a $60,000 settlement two years after she filed the lawsuit.

"The parties decided they would settle their matter. We were pleased with the way the trial was proceeding, but there are always vagaries and risks in a trial," Bridges said. "If [resolution] can be achieved fairly and reasonably, it's a better alternative."

Long Beach paid two of its former female police officers nearly $3 million after they won a $3.1-million award from a federal jury in 1992. The lawsuit alleged male officers sometimes refused to give backup assistance to the women, called them vulgar names, and sent offensive messages over police computers. Melissa Clerkin claimed colleagues retaliated against her when she complained that a former lover, who was also her supervisor, threatened her when their relationship ended. Lindsey Allison claimed fellow officers in the department's K-9 unit were hostile to her, exposed her to graphic sexual language, ridiculed her, and allowed their dogs to attack her.

The city settled the lawsuit because Long Beach officials believed the cost could reach $4.3 million if they lost their appeal.

Barbara Hadsell represented Clerkin and Allison. Hadsell said the city settled about a year after the verdict was announced.

"Frankly, given the position local governments are in now, one strategy they have developed is to appeal because it stalls the day [they would have to pay]," she said. "That might feed into an appeal strategy, as well. It just means they hold on to the money longer."

Hadsell said she believes many cities appeal because they don't want an unfavorable decision against them, especially an appellate decision because the Court of Appeals set the standard for future court decisions.