The $3.6 million judgment against Sacramento County and its sheriff’s department could have implications not only within the department but also for Sheriff Scott Jones’ political aspirations.
Jurors awarded more than $3.57 million in damages Tuesday to the four veteran female sheriff’s deputies who claimed their Sheriff’s Department superiors retaliated against them for speaking out against discrimination and preferential treatment in their ranks – conduct alleged to have occurred largely under Jones while he ran the Sacramento County Main Jail as a captain and later when he was elected sheriff.
Jones, who testified in the trial, is in a tightly contested congressional race against incumbent Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove. Bera won suburban Sacramento County’s 7th Congressional District by fewer than 1,500 votes over Republican Doug Ose in 2014 in one of the nation’s most closely watched races that year.
On Wednesday, as word of the verdict seeped into the congressional contest, Jones’ critics pounced.
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“Jones abused his authority and violated the very trust of the women that depended on him, and now Sacramento taxpayers are stuck with a $3.5 million bill,” said Jerid Kurtz, Bera’s campaign manager. “If Jones’ own employees can’t trust him to do the right thing, how can the voters of Sacramento County believe he’ll stand up for them?”
During the six-week trial, the department blamed the women’s job changes on budgetary woes and poor job performance. Attorneys for the department denied claims of preferential treatment toward a deputy who the plaintiffs alleged was close to then-Capt. Erik Maness, now undersheriff. Maness also testified during the trial. The allegations against Maness, who would ascend to the top spot if Jones wins, were proved unfounded in a department investigation.
Jurors rejected the department’s arguments and awarded more than $3.2 million of the damages to Sheriff’s Sgt. Tracie Keillor, who was stricken by a 2013 stroke she said was triggered by the stress of a department internal affairs investigation into her alleged tampering with electronic personnel records. Keillor was later cleared of wrongdoing.
In all, Keillor was awarded more than $1.4 million in projected future earnings, $1.5 million for emotional and physical distress and about $307,000 for past economic losses.
Deputy Jodi Mendonca was awarded $66,240 in earnings lost when she was moved out of a project leader’s post. Former jail operations commander Lt. Dawn Douglas was awarded more than $185,000 in lost earnings and emotional distress, while jurors awarded Lt. Annica Hagadorn, the lead plaintiff in the suit against Sacramento County, $100,000 for emotional distress.
Jurors also rejected lengthy testimony from a stream of past and present Sheriff’s Department brass under whose watch the alleged bias occurred, including Jones and former Sheriff John McGinness.
“We found a lot of retaliation,” said juror Sheryl Daverio, outside the courtroom Tuesday, next to fellow juror Margaret Griffin. Griffin said the deputies confronted superiors not about any relationship, but the benefits to the deputy that the perceived friendship produced.
“They came forward for the preferential treatment. They didn’t come forward for the relationship,” Griffin said.
Sacramento County officials say the Sheriff’s Department stands by its decisions, denies its officers retaliated against the deputies and vows to challenge the verdicts. Sheriff’s officials on Wednesday declined comment, referring questions to the Sacramento County Counsel’s Office.
“The Sheriff’s Department stands by the personnel decisions it made,” the county’s statement read in part. “Just as the plaintiffs exercised their right to file a lawsuit, the County will exercise its right to challenge the legal and factual veracity of the verdicts via post-trial motions.”
But plaintiffs’ attorneys say changes at the department are long overdue.
“They should open up the process and be more transparent. That starts at the very top. It starts with the sheriff himself,” said plaintiffs’ lead attorney Jerry Chong on Wednesday.
“They were trying to take a first step in making changes,” said co-counsel Lisa Mak, an employment law attorney at San Francisco-based Minami Tamaki LLP. “Our hope is that it will open a dialogue about these issues.”
Attorney Nancy Sheehan, representing Sacramento County at trial, said she was “befuddled” by a verdict that could have lasting ramifications for a department that for weeks saw its policies, procedures and very culture come under intense scrutiny in open court.
Jones told The Sacramento Bee earlier this year that as he campaigned for Congress he expected to be answerable to the problems, including excessive force claims, which beset his department.
The case of discrimination and preferential treatment is sure to surface in the campaign, said Jessica Levinson, an expert on ethics laws and professor at Loyola Law School. She contrasted it with the troubles that hit the Bera family in recent days. Bera’s father, Babulal Bera, pleaded guilty last week to two counts of elections fraud involving the finances of the congressman’s campaign committee. Bera’s campaign has since returned a contribution from his father. Federal officials said they found no evidence Bera or his staff were aware of the elder Bera’s crimes.
The dueling setbacks have rocked a race months ahead of the November runoff election.
“What someone’s subordinates do is arguably more damaging than what someone’s father does,” Levinson said. But, she was careful to add, “if either one of them are responsible for the bad behavior for those around them, it’s a big problem … that’s beyond politics. It’s a legal problem.”
The multimillion-dollar jury verdict comes a few days after the sheriff’s congressional campaign stumbled when a key labor ally, the Teamsters Joint Council 7, withdrew its endorsement, citing Jones’ pledge to vote for likely GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Barb Solish, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, dashed off a response to the verdict that draws in Trump.
“As the head of this already scandal-ridden department, Sheriff Scott Jones must answer for these unacceptable discriminatory actions under his watch that are now costing taxpayers millions of dollars,” Solish wrote in an email. “It’s no wonder that Scott Jones is voting for Donald Trump – they both have the same lack of respect for women.”
Dave Gilliard, Jones’ campaign strategist, said he expects voters in the 7th District, spanning Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova and Folsom, will look at what directly affects their lives when determining their choice for Congress.
“They are going to vote for who can do the best job for them, their district and their country,” Gilliard said. “And we are confident they will choose the sheriff.”
County officials in their statement Wednesday said other allegations of racial and sexual harassment, discrimination and race-based harassment were tossed out before trial, leaving the deputies with only the retaliation claim.
Attorneys for the county argued as mantra throughout trial that none of the plaintiff deputies lost pay, hours, benefits or rank, and that changes in assignments are routine occurrences, not adverse employment actions as argued by the deputies.
A budget crisis in 2009 decimated the department, forcing demotions, layoffs and reassignments, Maness and the county’s attorneys said. Keillor’s and Mendonca’s reassignments that year were among the hard choices that superiors had to make, attorneys said.
But Hagadorn was hit with a pair of internal affairs investigations and shipped off from her assignment as a north area patrol watch commander to an Elk Grove jail posting, a two-hour drive from her Nevada County home. The internal affairs inquiries came after Hagadorn filed suit against the department claiming she had been repeatedly passed over for promotions and opportunities to advance.
“It was extremely important” to push ahead with the suit, said Hagadorn, the department’s highest-ranking African American female officer, her eyes rimmed with tears, following the verdict. “If I don’t lead that charge, how can I expect others to come behind me and want to do the same?”