Sacramento jurors, in a $1.1 million verdict Wednesday, sided with a state corrections employee who claimed her higher-ups did little or nothing to protect her from threats made by one of her subordinates, then retaliated against her when she complained of the threatening treatment.
Jurors awarded Onalis Giunta, a supervising dental assistant at Folsom State Prison when she filed the 2012 lawsuit against California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, $990,000 for noneconomic losses and mental suffering along with another $107,000 in past and future earnings, in their verdict, court documents showed.
It was not known Thursday whether there were plans to appeal the verdict.
Giunta in the lawsuit characterized the man identified in court documents as Serge Protsyuk, as a problem employee who often ran afoul of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation rules and regulations.
Giunta alleged that the employee threatened to bring a gun to work after disciplinary action in November 2010. Protsyuk followed the alleged gun threat with months of more intimidation, the lawsuit alleged, forcing Giunta to take a yearlong, doctor-ordered stress leave.
Giunta, in the suit, described a February 2011 incident in which Giunta found flowers on her car after Protsyuk had asked what car she drove.
“I don’t feel safe, you know, driving home in my car right now because I don’t know if something was done to my car,” Giunta is quoted as saying in a deposition detailed in the court documents.
Giunta attorneys Lawrance Bohm and Robert Boucher of Sacramento argued in the briefs that Giunta took her concerns to state corrections supervisors including the prison’s warden, before going to the Governor’s Office.
Giunta’s attorneys contended corrections officials did nothing to prevent the behavior, painting corrections bureaucracy as “fickle and self-serving,” and deriding its workplace violence policy as “impotent.”
Instead, Giunta’s attorneys said once Giunta returned from leave in 2012 she was told she must either return to work with Protsyuk, resign or find another job.
She was ultimately assigned to a posting in Vacaville, before taking a voluntary demotion to transfer to a facility in Elk Grove.
Attorneys from the state attorney general’s office representing Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation denied the suit’s claims, saying officials investigated and disciplined the offending employee.
Corrections officials maintained Giunta was never unsafe at Folsom, that she showed no evidence that she was harassed and intimidated after the employee’s original comment and that Giunta was offered a transfer back to Folsom, but declined once she learned that she would work again with the employee.
The arguments didn’t satisfy jurors. After weeks of trial, jurors decided Giunta was a victim of adverse employment action and that telling her superiors about the employee’s threats contributed to her transfer to Vacaville. The panel also decided the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s conduct was a “substantial factor” in causing Giunta harm.
Giunta attorney Bohm said the verdict sends a strong signal to employers to take workplace intimidation – and the policies drawn to prevent it – seriously.
“You can’t ignore workplace policies. You can’t minimize workplace violence,” Bohm said Wednesday. “By minimizing Ms. Giunta, you maximize her harm.”