The Public Eye

Sacramento County paid nearly $640,000 to fight deputies’ bias suit, county says

Sacramento County paid outside lawyers nearly $640,000 to fight allegations that Sheriff’s Department superiors retaliated against four veteran female deputies for speaking out against discrimination and preferential treatment, county officials disclosed this week.

The bill so far is $637,486.80, according to officials. And Sacramento County could be on the hook for millions more unless it can successfully appeal a recent court decision. Earlier this month, Sacramento Superior Court jurors awarded veteran sheriff’s lieutenants Annica Hagadorn and Dawn Douglas, Sgt. Tracie Keillor and Deputy Jodi Mendonca $3.57 million in its May 17 judgment.

The retaliation verdict was the first of two cases resolved this month against the Sheriff’s Department that involved allegations of improper behavior under the leadership of Sheriff Scott Jones, who is running for Congress in a tightly contested race.

In the second case, the county paid $150,000 to settle an excessive force complaint against the Sheriff’s Department alleging a deputy beat Mickey Donohue of Rocklin in 2014 with a heavy flashlight. Deputy Paul “Scotte” Pfeifer has been named in at least two other lawsuits alleging he used his flashlight as a weapon to beat suspects.

“The county does everything we can to reduce the exposure of judgments in the interest of our constituents,” said Chris Andis, a Sacramento County spokeswoman.

Even though there has been a settlement in the excessive force case, Sheriff’s Department spokesman Sgt. Tony Turnbull told The Bee the department does not consider the case to be settled. And county officials, along with Jones, vigorously have denied the female deputies’ claims and have indicated they will appeal.

Any appeal will keep the meter running on litigation costs that started in December 2010. Sacramento County called on Porter Scott, one of Sacramento’s top civil litigation firms, soon after Hagadorn filed her suit. Hagadorn alleged she had been repeatedly passed over for promotions, targeted with internal affairs investigations and subjected to punitive transfers after she complained to state employment officials about discrimination.

The case grew when Sheriff’s Lt. Dawn Douglas, Sgt. Tracie Keillor and Deputy Jodi Mendonca joined Hagadorn’s lawsuit claiming they were retaliated against by their superiors – including Undersheriff Erik Maness, then a captain – after they confronted Maness with their suspicions of an improper relationship and preferential treatment of a female deputy under his command. Allegations of an improper relationship were deemed unfounded after an internal investigation.

Sacramento County officials say the county commonly retains private attorneys for cases in which complex litigation and demands on time are an issue. Sacramento County Counsel’s Office has about 3,000 litigation matters pending, Andis said last week. The office also provides legal advice to the county’s Board of Supervisors, county departments and other public entities along with elected officials.

In Porter Scott’s case, the firm “is well-regarded and has a high degree of complex litigation expertise,” Andis said. The 40-year-old firm boasts a long résumé of defending government, law enforcement, corporate, education and medical clients against allegations including discrimination, negligence and workplace retaliation.

To pay the firm, the county tapped its liability fund to cover the litigation expenses, Andis said.

During the trial, Porter Scott attorneys called a long line of active-duty and retired sheriff’s brass to the stand – including Sheriff Jones and his predecessor John McGinness – to dispute the plaintiffs’ claims. They argued that poor performance and personality conflicts in Hagadorn and Douglas’ cases, and budgetary woes in Keillor and Mendonca’s – not payback for speaking out – kept their careers from advancing.

But jurors, after a six-week civil trial that closely examined the policies, procedures and culture at one of California’s largest sheriff’s departments, rejected the county’s arguments.

Plaintiffs and their attorneys called the verdict “vindication” after a years-long court battle in a decision that left Porter Scott attorney Nancy Sheehan “befuddled,” she said.

Sacramento County officials said the Sheriff’s Department stands by its personnel decisions and denies the retaliation claims. Officials vowed to challenge “the legal and factual veracity of the verdicts” in post-trial motions. Those motions are due June 3, Andis said.

Andis earlier this week said the county continues to consider its options, but that “it is likely we will preserve our rights to appeal by filing whatever motions are necessary.”

Darrell Smith: 916-321-1040, @dvaughnsmith

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