A state appeals court Wednesday overturned a Ventura County judge's decision and reinstated the sexual harassment lawsuit of a former Simi Valley policewoman who contends she was subjected to 11 years of discrimination by fellow officers.
In a strongly worded opinion, the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Ventura ruled unanimously that sexual harassment need not involve lewd behavior, but rather "occurs when an employer creates a hostile environment for an employee because of that employee's sex."
"It need not have anything to do with lewd acts, double-entendres or sexual advances," Justice Arthur Gilbert wrote for the court.
The ruling reinstates a Superior Court lawsuit filed in March, 1992, against the city of Simi Valley by Debbra J. Accardi, who said the city's Police Department has an unwritten policy that law enforcement is "a man's job" and "no women need apply."
During her 11 years with the department, Accardi alleges in her lawsuit, she endured a campaign of harassment that ranged from spreading lies about her abilities to stuffing her shotgun with paper so the weapon would explode if fired.
The justices did not rule on the merits of Accardi's charges, but said she should have the chance to prove them in court.
"The circumstances alleged here are sufficiently severe and pervasive so as to establish the existence of a long-standing abusive working environment," Gilbert wrote.
Accardi was a Simi Valley police officer from November, 1980, until July, 1991, according to court documents.
She said in her lawsuit that when she first reported for work she was told that none of the male officers wanted to ride with her on patrol. In later years, she said, she was subjected to mockery, sexual advances and threats of bodily harm made in front of a room filled with officers.
She said her supervisors told her she had to accept the double standard applied to female officers in the department and that they deliberately overburdened her with double work assignments.
She also alleged that after she became partially disabled with a knee injury in 1989 she was excluded from some light duty assignments that were given to injured male officers. She said city employees filed false medical reports stating she was no longer disabled and her superiors told her either to declare herself 100% fit for work or quit.
"They forced her to retire," said Sylvia Simmons, one of Accardi's attorneys. "She had to change careers."
The attorney for the city could not be reached for comment.
Accardi's lawsuit was thrown out by Superior Court Judge Frederick A. Jones in 1992 after attorneys for the city argued successfully that the complaint did not state proper legal grounds for sexual harassment and was filed too long after most of the activities had allegedly occurred.
But the appeals court, in its published decision that can be cited as legal precedent, cautioned against reading sexual harassment laws too narrowly. The court said that while an individual act against Accardi may not fit the definition, the entire course of conduct against her might.
"A play cannot be understood on the basis of some of its scenes but only on its entire performance, and similarly, a discrimination analysis must concentrate not on individual incidents, but on the overall scenario," Gilbert wrote, quoting another court opinion.
Simmons said the attitude in the Police Department that led to the harassment was pervasive.
"It was pretty much common knowledge throughout the department . . . that this was going on and tolerated and encouraged," Simmons said.