A former employee filed a lawsuit against the state Senate and former Sen. Tony Mendoza on Tuesday alleging that she was fired in retaliation for reporting that he sexually harassed a young woman working in his office last year.
Adriana Ruelas, Mendoza's former legislative director, is seeking unspecified monetary damages related to the Sept. 22 firing and allegations that Mendoza defamed her character publicly after the Senate let her go, according to a lawsuit she filed in Sacramento Superior Court. The lawsuit repeats many of the allegations Ruelas outlined in an earlier complaint filed with the state as a necessary precursor to her suit.
Mendoza resigned from office on Feb. 22 as the Senate considered taking up a resolution that day to expel him in light of confirmed claims Ruelas and others made against him. His decision came days after the Senate publicly released the findings of a two-month investigation that determined he "more likely than not" made unwanted advances on six women, including four subordinates, over the last decade.
Mendoza is running for re-election in Senate District 32, casting himself as the victim to voters. He could not be immediately reached for comment on Tuesday.
"It became clear to me that the Senate leadership hoped to bury any issue regarding the behavior of legislators, including many of their own, by burying me," Mendoza claimed in a personal statement explaining his reasons for running.
Mendoza said he was never allowed to respond to the allegations against him, which he dismissed as flirting, and questioned the integrity of the Senate's new process to investigate complaints. Mendoza only admitted "being guilty of being part of a male dominated Sacramento culture of power and privilege" and apologized to anyone he "may have offended."
The Sacramento Bee reported in November that sources alleged Mendoza made unwanted advances on a 23-year-old Sacramento State fellow working in his office and twice invited her to his home to go over her résumé for a full-time job.
Lawyers the Senate hired to investigate confirmed the allegations and determined that Mendoza likely never intended to offer her a job, despite the invitations to his home. The investigation also determined Mendoza suggested the fellow could have shared a room with him on an overnight work trip and suggested they go to dinner, see a movie and take a vacation together.
The Senate also confirmed that Mendoza likely offered alcohol to and drank with a different 19-year-old intern in his hotel suite on a separate occasion, among other complaints.
The Senate released a summary of the findings of the investigation in February, but did not disclose the full report. The summary did not confirm the allegations that Mendoza retaliated against Ruelas and two other employees for reporting his behavior to Senate officials.
Ruelas alleges that she was also fired for complaining about Mendoza's district director with a felony record. Ruelas said she complained about the way the district director, Ana Perez, treated them and questioned the legality of her employment with the Senate.
The investigative summary stated that there were "pre-existing conflicts" between Mendoza's Capitol and district offices and that sexual harassment problems had not been reported until the day Ruelas and two other employees were fired. The investigation concluded that the employees were likely "terminated for reasons unrelated to any complaint of sexual harassment."
Ruelas, who worked for Mendoza for one year, questions the Senate investigation in her lawsuit and said Mendoza's "behavior was reported to the Senate on multiple occasions and widely known."
The lawsuit says the Senate investigation focused on sexual harassment "and inquired into the retaliation allegations made by plaintiff only in passing." Ruelas alleges that Eusevio Padilla, a key witness and Mendoza's former chief of staff, refused to answer questions about retaliation during the Senate investigation.
Ruelas said she and another employee discussed the senator's inappropriate behavior toward the fellow with Padilla long before they were fired, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit alleges that Padilla told them he reported the behavior to Jeannie Oropeza, the head of human resources in the Senate, beginning when Mendoza invited the fellow to attend an overnight event in Napa in February of 2017.
Oropeza and Daniel Alvarez, the secretary of the Senate, were named in the lawsuit. Neither immediately responded to a request for comment on Tuesday. The Senate typically does not comment on pending lawsuits.
Ruelas said she confirmed the misconduct allegations against the senator in a phone conversation with Oropeza in August. The lawsuit alleges that Oropeza concurred it was "bad" during the phone call.
The lawsuit states that Ruelas went a step further and explicitly told Oropeza that she was officially reporting sexual harassment the day she was fired. Ruelas alleges that she told Oropeza that the firing wasn't fair and had nothing to do with them.
"This is clearly retaliatory because of what we know," Ruelas said she told Oropeza on Sept. 22. She alleges that Oropeza responded by saying "I know, I am so sorry."
The lawsuit walks through a series of comments Mendoza made about the terminations tied to performance issues as examples of public defamation. Ruelas alleges that she never received any negative feedback about her work during her time in Mendoza's office.
Mendoza's statements contradicted the initial explanation for the firings from his office months before The Bee published reports about the fellow and two other women he harassed. A spokesman in his office called Ruelas and the employees "excellent" and said Mendoza wanted staff with expertise in issue areas related to his committees when asked about the terminations in late September.
Ruelas is seeking a jury trial and unspecified damages.