Judge dismisses harassment complaint against Yolo Sheriff Ed Prieto

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

Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto scored a major legal victory Thursday in his defense of sexual harassment accusations that have plagued him for years.

A Sacramento federal judge threw out a lawsuit filed two years ago by a female correctional officer alleging that Prieto subjected her and other female employees of the Sheriff’s Office to a hostile work environment with unwelcome hugs and kisses.

Victoria Zetwick “did not put forth sufficient facts to support her claim,” U.S. District Judge Troy L. Nunley ruled in a 16-page order granting a request by the county and the sheriff for summary judgment in their favor.

Nunley ordered the suit dismissed and the case closed.

Zetwick’s attorney, Johnny Griffin III, said, “We have carefully studied Judge Nunley’s opinion. We disagree with its conclusions and will seek review” at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Cori Sarno, a member of the Sacramento law firm Angelo, Kilday & Kilduff, which represents the county and Prieto, said: “As anyone knows who watches the popular television show ‘The Voice,’ or who has seen a presidential State of the Union address, a casual greeting with a hug or a kiss on the cheek is a socially acceptable manner of greeting someone, and should not be viewed as sexual harassment.

“We are pleased the court agreed that the alleged conduct of the sheriff in this case was ‘within the realm of common workplace behavior’ and ‘ordinary workplace socializing,’” Carno added. “We believe the court reached the right result and are thrilled to have vindicated the sheriff in this case.”

The overall message of Nunley’s order is that every one of Zetwick’s facts falls far short of what the state and federal laws require to sustain a civil rights violation based on a hostile-workplace assertion.

Zetwick, a corrections sergeant and veteran of 26 years in the Sheriff’s Office, alleged that Prieto embraced and kissed her on the cheek more than 100 times between 1998, when he was first elected, and 2012, when her suit was filed.

The suit highlighted an occasion in May 2003 when Prieto kissed Zetwick on the side of the mouth, in the presence of her husband, while congratulating her on her recent marriage. That was a game-changer, she charged, transforming all the hugs and kisses on the cheeks into a basis for a sexual harassment claim.

“This kiss, even if intentional, was a single incident outside the character of all the other interactions and did not mark the beginning of … escalated … harassment,” Nunley wrote. (It) cannot be used to establish a pattern of harassment.”

Zetwick alleged “numerous” female employees of the department told her they did not like getting hugs from Prieto. The suit claimed she was present when the sheriff “inappropriately commented on another female employee’s weight.”

Again, Nunley said these instances fail to adequately support Zetwick’s abusive-behavior claim. Citing examples of Prieto’s alleged conduct with other women is not sufficient to meet the abusive standard, he said.

“Assessing the totality of the circumstances, this court finds that plaintiff has failed to show either a sufficient tangible job detriment or sufficient severe or pervasive conduct,” the judge wrote.

He pointed out that Zetwick was promoted to sergeant when she applied for the position, she has been rated “exceeds standards” in almost every aspect of her performance evaluation, and she is unable to articulate an instance in which her work was criticized as a result of her complaints about Prieto’s actions. Zetwick cites no assignment she was unable to complete due to stress caused by Prieto, nor any time off work for that reason, Nunley wrote.

She has not alleged lost wages, unwarranted discipline, changes in assignment, or denial of promotional opportunities traceable to Prieto’s interaction with her, the judge noted.

In other words, according to Nunley, the typical ingredients of a hostile workplace environment are not present.

A similar lawsuit filed last year is still pending in federal court. In it, veteran Yolo County sheriff’s Deputy Robin Gonzalez accuses Prieto of protracted sexual harassment, culminating in his offer to trade an assignment for oral sex.

At the time it was filed, Sarno blasted that suit as “a bogus attempt to extort money from the county by making false, inflammatory claims against the sheriff.”

Call The Bee’s Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.

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