The State Worker

From hidden cameras to crotch-watching: California pays out millions for sexual harassment

Tyann Sorrell on her experience: ‘Absolutely boundary-crossing violating behavior’

Tyann Sorrell, an executive assistant in the UC Berkeley School of Law, accused the new dean, Sujit Choudhry, of inappropriately hugging, touching and kissing her after his arrival in 2014.
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Tyann Sorrell, an executive assistant in the UC Berkeley School of Law, accused the new dean, Sujit Choudhry, of inappropriately hugging, touching and kissing her after his arrival in 2014.

Four young men who were locked in a youth correctional facility in Southern California accused a male staff counselor of coercing them into sex acts in exchange for contraband and special treatment. The cost to taxpayers to settle their lawsuit: $10 million.

At California State University, Fullerton, a female student in her 20s reported that her professor encouraged her to drink whiskey with him in his office and advised her to masturbate during the week to relax, then report back to him on her progress. The cost? The CSU system paid $92,000 to settle her case, while the student became fearful and anxious after the encounters and her “quality of life declined,” her lawsuit contended.

And at California State Prison-Corcoran, which has housed the likes of Juan Corona and Charles Manson until his recent death, a female correctional officer said a fellow guard repeatedly made explicit sexual comments, stared at her breasts and crotch, touched her with his hands and pelvis and called her at home, according to court documents and interviews. The state settled her case for $750,000.

While public attention has been riveted on sexual harassment allegations in the California Legislature, with sordid charges and counter-charges swirling around a handful of lawmakers, the issue and its related costs extend far beyond the Capitol dome.

A Bee investigation has determined that the state paid more than $25 million in the last three fiscal years to settle sexual harassment claims against state agencies and public universities. Sexual harassment settlements cost California taxpayers about $21.3 million of that amount, while the two university systems say insurance plans covered their payouts of nearly $3.9 million during the same three-year period.

How the $25 million compares over time is unclear. As reported in November by The Bee, the state does not make public the overall cost of litigating and settling sexual harassment lawsuits, and no one in state government officially admits to tracking such cases across departmental lines.

“This is just so outrageous,” said Carolyn Pfanner, a Davis rancher and board member for the Yolo County Taxpayers Association. “Twenty-five million is a heck of a lot of money. It just shows a complete disdain for taxpayers, who have to work hard to provide that money.”

Pfanner said she called the Governor’s Office late last year when she learned from The Bee about the state’s lack of public accountability for sexual harassment claims and payouts.

“We need to know who these perpetrators are,” she said. “We want transparency.”

With nearly 230,000 employees, and offices extending from San Diego to Sacramento to Crescent City, the executive branch of state government is California’s second largest employer, behind the federal government. Add in the university systems, and the state catapults to the No. 1 employer in the Golden State.

Florida, whose state workforce (excluding higher education) is less than half the size of California’s, paid about $11 million over a 30-year period to settle its sexual harassment cases, according to an Associated Press report in November, which chronicled three decades of payouts in that state. Sexual harassment cases cost the state of New York at least $5 million between 2008 and 2010, according to The New York Times, which examined records from the New York Attorney General’s Office.

California appears to be outpacing both those states in the volume of sexual harassment claims and the cost of settling them before trial.

The Bee identified 92 sexual harassment settlements reached by the state between July 1, 2014, and June 30, 2017. The settlements involved 24 agencies and 10 campuses within both university systems.

Payouts ranged from a relatively meager $500 to an inmate at California State Prison-Centinela, near the Mexico border, to the $10 million paid in 2016 by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to the young wards who had alleged sexual abuse by their staff counselor.

The Bee found that the highest settlement paid to a single individual went to a former executive assistant at the UC Berkeley School of Law, Tyann Sorrell, who settled her sexual harassment claim last March against the former law school dean, Sujit Choudhry, for $1.7 million. Among state agencies, former correctional officer Irma Sanchez received the highest single settlement of $750,000 after accusing a fellow guard, Sydney Smyth, at the maximum security prison in Corcoran of harassing her over a 2  1/2 -year period, despite her repeated complaints to superiors about his conduct, according to Sanchez’s lawsuit.

Of the settlements, 36 were for at least $100,000 and seven exceeded $500,000.

“There’s no blueprint, there’s no manual on how to handle this,” said Sorrell, who described her case against Choudhry as a painful period of anger, anxiety, self-doubt and disappointment.

“I really started a journey that many of us didn’t anticipate.”

Cases rock multiple agencies

The Bee found that the state entities responsible for the highest total payouts in recent years were the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, with more than $15 million in settlement costs, and the UC system with an estimated $3.4 million. UC was the only one of the 38 largest state entities that failed to release its 2016-17 sexual harassment settlement data, repeatedly stating it was “not finalized” yet. The Bee relied on other sources to compile at least a partial list of those more recent agreements.

Next on the list of highest payouts were two agencies that serve some of California’s most vulnerable residents: the Department of State Hospitals, with settlements totaling $1.3 million, and the Department of Developmental Services, with $800,000 in sexual harassment-related settlements over the past three fiscal years.

The stories that have spilled out in lawsuits over the last three fiscal years are as diverse as the agencies involved. Sexual harassment charges have been leveled by female and male and transgender employees, by inmates and parolees, by low-level workers and highly paid supervisors, by students and by teachers. Workers have sued their bosses, bosses have sued their employees, workers have sued their co-workers – with a hodge-podge of outcomes.

Among the cases:

▪ A female bank examiner for the Department of Business Oversight, Elaine Cui, settled her lawsuit for $37,855 after she accused a supervisor of locking the two of them into a bank room for several hours during an examination, purportedly to “mentor” her. The supervisor, identified in the lawsuit as Steven A. Vance, “a married man,” allegedly hovered over her in the locked room, touched her several times and refused to let her leave. He denied the accusations, court records show.

▪ A male warehouse worker for the California State Lottery, Chad Henson, settled his case for $250,000 after he accused co-workers of a two-year barrage of anti-gay comments and harassing behavior. The alleged taunting by fellow warehouse workers Paul Bowden III and Sunday Seng occurred at the Lottery’s Scratchers warehouse in Rancho Cucamonga. Many of the vulgar comments described in the lawsuit focused on sex and male anatomy and, despite Henson’s repeated complaints to his bosses, “no remedial action was taken” by the Lottery, the lawsuit stated.

▪ A male equipment operator for the California Department of Transportation, Gregory Baker, settled his sexual harassment lawsuit for $150,000 after accusing a male supervisor of making unwanted advances and, at one point, holding him down in his pickup truck and rubbing his thigh and genitals. The supervisor, Phil Pulcifer, allegedly rubbed and caressed Baker at work at least two more times after Baker had filed internal complaints. The case was settled quickly by the state, only two months after Baker filed a lawsuit in Sacramento Superior Court.

▪ Alice Conteh, a female psychiatric technician for the Department of State Hospitals, said that a male staff psychiatrist, Dr. Ahmed Haggag, cornered her at the California Health Care Facility in Stockton, restrained her by the head and forcibly kissed her on the lips, her lawsuit stated. Conteh, who settled her case for $50,000, said Haggag continuously subjected her to “unwelcome verbal, visual, and physical conduct of a sexual nature,” including telling her that she needed to leave her husband, according to the suit.

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Not all plaintiffs came away big winners.

In 2015, a former hospital assistant at the UC Davis Medical Center agreed to settle his nearly two-year-old lawsuit for $1,000 after complaining about finding “pornographic and profane graffiti” directed at him in a bathroom. Lawyers for the regents contended that the worker, Barry Smith, had been terminated “due to poor attendance,” and the settlement agreement called for Smith to have no future employment or affiliation with any UC campus or entity.

Employment lawyers who have sued the state over alleged sexual harassment say they caution their clients: Be ready for a fight. In interviews with nine attorneys with past or present cases, all described the risky nature of these lawsuits for employees who believe they’ve been victimized at work.

Mary-Alice Coleman, a Davis employment lawyer, said she has found that some state departments are “much worse than others in terms of harassment and retaliation and fighting (these cases).”

“There are several departments you really have to think long and hard about before you agree to go after them,” said Coleman, who once worked as an attorney for the state.

Coleman cited the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the UC system, the two largest entities in state government, as powerful institutions that tend to vigorously fight sexual harassment claims, sometimes to “bizarre” extents, she said.

Coleman and another active employment attorney, Lawrance Bohm of Sacramento, contend that the state often behaves as though taxpayer resources are limitless in fighting these claims, dragging out cases for years and driving up legal costs for both sides.

“I can tell you that the UC Regents are by far the most aggressive, slow-going and difficult to deal with,” said Bohm. “They litigate like they are billionaires. They literally don’t care at all about how much money is going into their litigation.”

UC spokeswoman Claire Doan disputes that characterization and said in an email statement that “UC’s response to a case will vary according to the particular issues and circumstances involved.”

“(W)e always strive to be thorough, efficient and financially prudent in our legal approach,” she stated. “As a steward of public dollars, we will aggressively litigate cases when necessary and appropriate to protect the interests and resources entrusted by the public to the university.”

While many cases reviewed by The Bee dragged on for years, winding through the appellate courts, some did wrap up quickly.

In a huge case in San Joaquin County, Edmund Corpuz, a supervisor for the California Department of State Hospitals, admitted to hiding a video camera in April 2015 under the bathroom sink at a mental health prison in Stockton. A year later, 34 state workers sued.

Initially, the state’s lawyers had argued that the matter was not technically sexual harassment because Corpuz’s actions were not gender-specific because both sexes were recorded using the coed bathroom. Ultimately, though, the case settled one year after the lawsuits hit.

The state’s cost to settle: $784,500.

“Both sides were very motivated to get this resolved,” said James Jirn, a Bay Area attorney who represented one group of plaintiffs. “People were wondering, ‘How the hell could this have happened?’ 

The Department of State Hospitals bore the brunt of the settlement, $627,600, while the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation picked up the rest. The camera had been hidden at the California Health Care Facility in Stockton, a mental health prison managed at that time by the Department of State Hospitals but operated under an agreement to treat inmates from Corrections. This left both departments on the hook after the 34 workers sued for invasion of privacy and other violations.

Corpuz was prosecuted criminally in San Joaquin County and convicted of several misdemeanors under a plea agreement.

Corrections cases top $15 million

By far, the most sexual harassment settlements in the last three fiscal years emanated from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, a trend that dates back years in California.

As the state’s second-largest agency, behind only the UC system, Corrections paid out 36 settlements totaling more than $15.1 million, The Bee found.

The alleged misconduct took place at multiple locations – from California State Prison-Sacramento to Mule Creek State Prison in Ione to San Quentin in Marin County.

The largest single settlement was $10 million, an agreement reached in March 2016 – more than a decade after four young men first filed suit against the department for their alleged treatment at the Herman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino. The facility, now closed, was then part of the California Youth Authority, which has been renamed the Division of Juvenile Justice.

The allegations included charges that then-correctional counselor James Shelby, a peace officer allowed to carry a firearm and handcuffs while on duty, sexually abused young Latino wards. According to the lawsuit filed in San Bernardino Superior Court, Shelby demanded oral and anal sex in exchange for granting privileges, including good jobs, or access to such items as TVs, cellphones and hygiene products.

One of the wards who told Shelby he “would no longer tolerate Shelby’s advances” was beaten after Shelby allegedly opened his room door from the control booth and directed three other wards to beat him, the lawsuit said. Another ward at the facility allegedly had his jaw broken after he asked to transfer from Shelby’s caseload, according to the suit.

It was a long hard fight for these brave young men who were willing to fight the system,” said Los Angeles attorney Gary Dordick, who represented the plaintiffs.

Dordick noted that Shelby had a background in psychology and knew how to manipulate the young men, dangling the prospect of significant rewards – or punishment – depending on their willingness to comply with his sexual demands.

“For them, there is no recourse,” the attorney said. “They’re stuck ... He would tell these young men, ‘Who do you think they’re going to believe? A felon? Or me?’ 

In courtroom testimony, Shelby denied having sexual contact with the plaintiffs, denied setting up any beating and suggested that the motive behind the charges was retaliation for his actions as an officer.

The state lost in the trial court in 2010 but appealed to the 4th District Court of Appeal which, in 2015, mostly affirmed the lower court’s judgment against the counselor and his superiors. The state settled the case about five months later for $10 million.

While this case involved inmates, the more typical lawsuits against the department were filed by female correctional workers, according to The Bee’s analysis.

Diana Bernhardt, a former office assistant at High Desert State Prison in Susanville, alleged that a male supervisor, Lt. David Griffith, made unwanted sexual advances, called her and others “pissy-pants,” grabbed a co-worker’s breast in front of her and pulled down his trousers to expose his bare buttocks, bragging about the butt scratches he got from his sexual encounters. Bernhardt settled her case for $310,000.

Heather Garcia, a pharmacy technician at Kern Valley State Prison near Bakersfield, accused her supervisor, Bill Flynn, of staring at her breasts and commenting aloud on them. She settled for $51,670.

Sophia Curry, a former correctional officer at California State Prison-Sacramento (New Folsom), was among a group of women who filed a federal lawsuit alleging that between at least November 1989 and 2011, female correctional workers were frequently harassed by inmates at prisons throughout California by exposing themselves, masturbating and ejaculating in their presence.

Curry’s circumstances led to violence. According to the complaint, Curry was on duty at the Folsom prison in August 2003 when she encountered a hostile and belligerent inmate, naked and masturbating. She wrote a violation report describing him as “a threat to all female staff.” According to the lawsuit, supervisors did not isolate the inmate or do a psychological evaluation. A week later, Curry was working without backup when the inmate attacked her from behind, placed her in a head-lock and began cutting her neck with a feces-covered metal can lid. Her settlement was $1.6 million.

“CDCR is more of a male-dominated department,” said Irma Sanchez of Hanford, a former correctional officer at California State Prison-Corcoran, who settled her case in 2016 for $750,000 after winning a jury verdict. “The men, no matter what – they stick together. They know they have control over the female staff.

“They can make your job a living hell,” she said. “And that’s what they did.”

‘They just don’t get it’

Sanchez’s complaint alleged that she was harassed by a male co-worker, Sydney Smyth, over a 2  1/2 -year period and subjected to “unwelcome sexual advances and offensive sexual comments and innuendo in the workplace.” According to her lawsuit, Sanchez filed an internal complaint and reported his conduct to multiple supervisors, but was “subjected to a pattern of retaliatory behavior.” At least one supervisor, Sgt. Eric Lawton, allegedly made demeaning comments about her concerns and “yelled at her for complaining.”

“It was always drilled into our heads that there was zero tolerance for sexual harassment at CDCR,” Sanchez said. “What I found out is that there is zero tolerance in their eyes for anyone filing against them for sexual harassment. They punish you for filing.”

Sanchez’s case, which named Smyth and the department, went to trial in May 2015, with a federal jury finding in her favor. The parties later reached the settlement agreement with additional terms and conditions. The department and Smyth denied the allegations and, in reaching the agreement, admitted no liability or wrongdoing, according to multiple documents filed in connection with the case.

Oakland civil rights attorney Pamela Y. Price, who represented Sanchez as well as Curry, filed her first sexual harassment case against Corrections in 1991. The department, she said, has “earned the title of my favorite defendant over 26 years.”

“They just don’t get it,” said Price, who is running for district attorney in Alameda County. “They fight these cases tooth and nail, and they treat these women like they committed a crime themselves.”

Price said the bedrock of the Corrections culture is that “you don’t complain – and if you do complain about how things are done, then there’s something wrong with you.”

Corrections spokeswoman Vicky Waters told The Bee that “even one harassment complaint is one too many.”

But, she said, the sheer size of the department and the type of work performed have a direct bearing on the statistics. With more than 61,000 employees – about a quarter of the state’s entire executive branch – the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation also houses more than 130,000 inmates, she said.

Waters said the department encourages employees to come forward and speak up if they have complaints of workplace harassment.

“... (T)here are an occasional few who fall below the high standards to which the department holds our staff to,” Waters wrote in a letter to The Bee. “Such behavior is not tolerated, and the department is constantly working to improve our training and procedures to ensure a harassment-free workplace for all of our employees.”

UC payouts pass $3.4 million

The University of California system was second only to Corrections in its sexual harassment payouts, exceeding $3.4 million in the last three fiscal years, The Bee found. UC is California’s third largest employer.

Without the UC’s 2016-17 sexual harassment settlement data, The Bee was able to identify four settlements during that period through media accounts. Two unrelated, million-dollar-plus settlements at UC Santa Cruz and the UC Berkeley School of Law – totaling more than $2.8 million – were widely publicized last year after being approved by the Board of Regents. The Bee confirmed those amounts through the principals in the cases, and from documents available online.

Two additional settlements at the University of California, Los Angeles, involving two graduate students and their professor reportedly totaled another $460,000, according to the UCLA student newspaper, the Daily Bruin. A UC spokesman told The Sacramento Bee that the UCLA settlement records will not be released because they involve students and are considered “education records,” exempt from public disclosure.

Among the most publicized cases was that of Sujit Choudhry, former dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law, who came to campus in July 2014 with an annual gross salary of $472,917. Within weeks, Choudhry allegedly began subjecting his executive assistant, Tyann Sorrell, to unwanted hugging, touching and kissing, according to her lawsuit.

It began slowly, she said, first with bear hugs. Then a kiss on the cheek. Then caresses, all of which she said she tried to deflect and brush off, not wanting to upset him.

And then, she said, “I had just had enough.”

Sorrell, a married mother of five children, reported her discomfort to numerous higher-ups and eventually filed a formal complaint. The university investigated and found that Choudhry had violated the university’s sexual harassment and sexual violence policy, and also had failed to complete his mandatory sexual harassment prevention training.

As discipline, his pay was docked 10 percent and he was required to write a letter of apology to Sorrell, an action that infuriated some faculty, students and alumni for its perceived light touch. Choudhry resigned in March 2016 after Sorrell filed her lawsuit, and UC President Janet Napolitano announced new measures that same month to improve how such incidents are handled.

“UC is not dealing with these issues without being pushed,” said Leslie Levy, Sorrell’s Oakland attorney. “And unfortunately, the only push is litigation.”

Last year, the regents agreed to pay Sorrell $1.7 million to settle the case. In a separate settlement, Choudhry also agreed to pay $50,000 to Sorrell’s attorneys, and another $50,000 to charities of Sorrell’s choice that deal with sexual harassment issues.

At UC Santa Cruz, student Luz Portillo settled her sexual assault case for $1.15 million. She charged that university officials failed to adequately investigate her claims that one of her professors, Hector Perla, raped her after a night of heavy drinking with him on the eve of Portillo’s June 2015 graduation. Instead of attending her ceremony the following day, Portillo was filing a police report.

Portillo told university investigators that she had been incapacitated and could not have consented to the sexual activity she later realized had occurred, while Perla claimed that sex was consensual, according to the university’s report of its Title IX investigation, heavily redacted and posted online by the Daily Californian, the UC Berkeley student newspaper. UC Santa Cruz has not yet released that report to The Bee.

Portillo, who now works as a legal assistant in her lawyer’s Los Angeles firm, called her settlement “pretty significant.” She said she chose to be identified and to talk openly about her case to help other victims, and to influence policy changes within the university system.

“I made them own up to their culpability of hiding this for so many decades,” said Portillo, who is applying to law school.

UC President Napolitano’s office notes that major reforms have been adopted. Before 2016, UC campuses investigated and decided cases about sexual harassment and sexual violence in different ways, said Dianne Klein, spokeswoman for the office of the president. After that, she said, the UC adopted a systemwide model “and we’ve been working hard to implement it consistently and fairly across all our campuses.”

“We understand that the burden is on the university to do a thorough investigation to find out what occurred,” Klein told The Bee in an email. “The burden should not be on the students.”

Insurance covers UC, CSU

UC spokeswoman Doan noted that all settlements paid in the most recent fiscal years provided by UC were covered by insurance, not taxpayer money. Representatives of the CSU system echoed the point that taxpayers are not on the hook for sexual harassment settlements, but tuition and fees pay for insurance premiums that cover them.

In the last three fiscal years, the CSU system settled five sexual harassment cases involving four campuses for a total of $440,500, The Bee found.

State Controller Betty Yee said she believes California can do a better job keeping track of its settlements costs.

In December, after The Bee had detailed the lack of public settlement data, Yee announced plans to “lift the veil of secrecy” and sponsor legislation that, among other things, would require state government entities to code settlement claims so that they can be differentiated and tracked. Currently, when the Legislature and various state departments submit bills for payment to the state controller, they do not code the request in a way that indicates whether payment is to settle any lawsuit or harassment claim.

Yee said it would likely take until 2019 to devise a tracking system, which states like Michigan have had for years.

“This should all be about transparency,” she said. “The public has a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent.”

Marjie Lundstrom: 916-321-1055, @MarjieLundstrom

How we did this story

Finding out how much the state paid to settle its sexual harassment claims is not a simple phone call or browse through the web. But public documents can provide at least a partial view of the legal costs over the last three fiscal years.

By piecing together responses to more than 40 California Public Records Act requests, The Bee identified 92 sexual harassment-related settlements between July 1, 2014, and June 30, 2017. Besides querying the Attorney General’s Office, The Bee requested copies of settlement agreements from the 38 state entities with 900 or more employees, excluding the judicial branch.

The total payouts for those agencies exceeded $25 million over the past three years, but that figure almost certainly under-estimates the scope of California’s settlement costs.

In some instances, the state hires outside attorneys to represent individual defendants at fees significantly higher than the attorney general’s discounted rate. Additionally, the Attorney General’s Office represents many, but not all, of the agencies facing claims, so The Bee’s data may not capture settlements reached by departments who used outside counsel.

The University of California, the state’s largest employer, was the only entity unable to provide settlement costs for the most recent 2016-17 fiscal year, requiring The Bee to find other sources for that data.

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