Capitol Alert

Former California Senate worker alleges rape, files complaint over firing

Sexual harassment cases at the California Capitol

Two lawmakers have resigned and one is on leave at the California Capitol over allegations of improper conduct toward women at the California Capitol. At least one other is under investigation, while the Legislature decides what the next steps are.
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Two lawmakers have resigned and one is on leave at the California Capitol over allegations of improper conduct toward women at the California Capitol. At least one other is under investigation, while the Legislature decides what the next steps are.

A former legislative aide filed a complaint with the state on Friday claiming that the California Senate failed to accommodate her emotional disabilities after an alleged rape by an Assembly employee and fired her last year for “minor work performance issues.”

Catalina Sanchez’s complaint to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing says she reported the alleged rape to both houses of the Legislature. A subsequent investigation by the Assembly did not substantiate the allegation. After Sanchez received medical treatment following the alleged rape in 2016, law enforcement was contacted. The man, who is not named in Sanchez’s complaint, was not prosecuted.

The complaint, filed against the Senate, Secretary of the Senate Daniel Alvarez and the Senate’s Deputy Secretary of Human Resources Jeannie Oropeza on Friday, is a required step before filing a lawsuit against the Legislature.

It asserts that Sanchez’s supervisors and the Senate human resources officials were told of her post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and a sleep disorder she suffered after her alleged rape and were responsible for accommodating her needs. California employers have an obligation to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with mental or physical disabilities who are temporarily unable to perform essential functions of their job under state law.

In her complaint, Sanchez alleges it was clear she was terminated on Sept. 19, 2017, for reporting the sexual assault, for taking time off to deal with her resulting disabilities and for making requests for “reasonable accommodations.” The complaint states that “it became instantly apparent that respondents, and the office for which she worked, no longer wanted to accommodate her reasonable requests for time off for medical appointments and to deal with her disabilities.”

It also argues that Sanchez was led to believe that it was acceptable for her to come into work late or take sick days due to her emotional suffering and was not informed of any serious work issues that put her at risk of losing her job.

Senate officials declined to comment on the claim.

Three state legislators have resigned since the “Me Too” movement upended the Capitol last year. Assemblymen Raul Bocanegra, D-Los Angeles, stepped down in late November after multiple women alleged that he groped or sexually harassed them. Assemblyman Matt Dababneh, D-Los Angeles, resigned at the end of last year facing sexual harassment and assault allegations from two women. Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, stepped down Thursday facing possible expulsion after a Senate investigation found that he “more likely than not” engaged in a pattern of unwanted advances and sexually suggestive behavior toward six women. Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, took a voluntary unpaid leave earlier this month as lawyers hired by the Legislature investigate allegations that she groped a former Capitol employee.

Sanchez’s complaint alleges that the unnamed perpetrator had “sexual intercourse with her without her consent” after joining her and friends for drinks on Dec. 16, 2016. It states that she sought medical attention and was administered a rape exam at a clinic, which resulted in a call to police. The filing states that Sanchez, who alleges that she was a virgin before the attack, felt “devastated both physically and emotionally as a result of the rape.”

The complaint notes that the alleged perpetrator, an Assembly employee, left his job after his boss learned of the rape allegation. It does not specify whether he was fired or left on his own.

It goes on to detail alleged dates in which Sanchez’s superiors approved her late arrivals or absences from work and meetings at which human resources officials were informed about her problems. The complaint also lists a failed suicide attempt in April hours after she was first interviewed by the Assembly’s lawyer and another attempt in August.

Sanchez last worked as a legislative aide to Sen. Bob Wieckowksi, D-Fremont. The complaint does not name him or his staff members.

Micha Star Liberty, a lawyer for Sanchez, said she has no reason to believe that the senator was told by human resources staff about the need to accommodate Sanchez.

“Had the senator been told, I do not believe the senator ever would have approved of this termination,” Liberty said. “The Senate failed the senator just like it failed my client.”

California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, on the Senate floor on Feb. 22, 2018, reacts to Sen. Tony Mendoza's resignation.

Taryn Luna: 916-326-5545, @TarynLuna