The Public Eye

Public Eye: Sacramento County fights sexual harassment claim

Sacramento County is fighting a sexual harassment lawsuit by two ex-employees who allege their discrimination complaints were not properly addressed, according to documents obtained by The Sacramento Bee.

Misty Calhoun and Silvia Gomez, former inspection aides in the Department of Agriculture and Weights and Measures, contend that their supervisor, Adrian Ramos, repeatedly sexually harassed them over several years. Despite complaints to management, the allegations were never entirely investigated, the women say.

“He would tell me how he would love the opportunity to sleep with me,” Calhoun said last week. “There were a lot of blatant advances. He didn’t hide it.”

Ramos, also a defendant in the lawsuit filed December 2012, declined to comment. He is still employed by the county. Chris Andis, spokeswoman for the county, also declined to comment.

But in a strongly worded response to the suit, attorneys for the county denied the allegations, calling the interactions “consensual.”

In California, workplace sexual harassment complaints have held steady for years but are now seeing a rise. Between 2008 and 2011, about 3,800 complaints were filed annually with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Last year, that figure surged to 6,169, likely because complaints can now be filed online, according to Annmarie Billotti, chief of dispute resolution for the agency.

Attorneys for both sides in the Sacramento case will be picking a trial date next month, said Julie Doumit, the plaintiffs’ attorney. Legal experts say the episode being played out is an anomaly rather than the norm.

“Most discrimination-related cases do not end up going to trial because the law allows an employee to collect not only damages, but also attorneys’ fees. Often, this is a very significant amount,” said Terry Wills, an attorney with Cook Brown LLP, a labor and employment law firm in Sacramento.

Many employers offer to settle privately rather than spend money defending themselves in court. As a result, it is difficult to track the number of sexual harassment claims because many are dealt with out of court.

“What we have is a very muddy picture of what’s going on,” said Susan Bisom-Rapp, a law professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. “If employers privatize the justice system by having internal complaint procedures, it’s very difficult to get a handle on the number of cases.”

Nationally, sexual harassment claims are on the decline. In 1997, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received nearly 16,000 complaints, but that number had fallen to 11,364 in 2011. Experts say the decline is likely based on a combination of factors, including the privatization of the complaint system, a bad economy and widespread sexual harassment training.

“A whole slew of things could be going on,” Bisom-Rapp said.

Another issue facing victims of sexual harassment is fear.

For Calhoun, five years went by before she took action to report Ramos. “I was scared for my job,” she said. “I knew that if I was going to report this, I was basically firing myself.”

“The vast majority of claims out there are never addressed at all. People either leave the workplace or remain silent,” Bisom-Rapp said.

Still, California has some of the toughest sexual harassment laws in the nation. Assembly Bill 1825, authored by then-Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes, D-Fresno, was enacted in 2004. The law requires two hours of training to guard against sexual harassment every two years for managers and supervisors of organizations with 50 or more employees.

Sometimes the training can fall on deaf ears.

During an online sexual harassment training session, Ramos allegedly “made inappropriate comments” to Calhoun, including telling her, “I’m distracted, I can’t stop looking at your lips,” according to the lawsuit.

As for how much sexual harassment claims cost private companies and taxpayers, no one really knows.

“Absolutely, a lot of settlements are confidential. Getting a real accurate picture is close to impossible,” Bisom-Rapp said.