Appeals court revives sexual harassment lawsuit against Yolo sheriff Ed Prieto

Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto in his office in 2009.
Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto in his office in 2009. Sacramento Bee

A federal appeals court has revived a sexual harassment lawsuit against Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto, saying a federal judge in Sacramento erred two years ago when he dismissed the suit and closed the case.

In a memo issued Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the November 2014 dismissal of the lawsuit by U.S. District Judge Troy L. Nunley.

The lawsuit by Victoria Zetwick, a veteran correctional sergeant, alleged that Prieto embraced and kissed her on the cheek more than 100 times between 1998 and 2012, when she filed the suit.

Zetwick, now retired, claimed that Prieto subjected her and other female employees to unwelcome hugs and kisses and had created a hostile work environment.

Prieto’s attorneys argued that the sheriff’s actions constituted nothing more than casual greetings, and Nunley found that Zetwick “did not put forth sufficient facts to support her claim.”

The appeals court disagreed, declaring that “a reasonable jury could find that Prieto’s conduct, particularly the alleged number and frequency of unwelcome kisses from a supervisor, was sufficient to create a hostile or abusive work environment.”

Prieto said Wednesday he had not seen the opinion and declined to comment. His attorney, Cori Sarno, described the allegations by Zetwick as involving “platonic hugs by the sheriff, no different than the type of hug one might give or receive with a grandma or a friend.”

“While we are disappointed with the court’s decision, we are prepared to vigorously defend this case through a trial before a jury and believe that Sheriff Prieto will ultimately be vindicated,” Sarno wrote in an emailed statement.

Zetwick said she was pleased with the court’s decision, “yet I am still saddened with having to terminate my employment with Yolo County Sheriff’s Department earlier than I planned, due to the treatment I received from Sheriff Prieto and my supervisors,” she wrote in an email statement to The Sacramento Bee.

Her attorney said he looked forward to pursuing the lawsuit.

“We’re extremely pleased with the 9th Circuit opinion and are looking forward to moving forward with the case and to the civil prosecution,” Johnny Griffin III said.

A similar case against Prieto filed in 2013 by a deputy was dismissed in 2015.

Sam Stanton: 916-321-1091, @StantonSam