California Senate pays $350,000 to settle workplace discrimination lawsuit from former employee
The California state Senate paid $350,000 to settle a workplace discrimination lawsuit filed by a former employee who alleged that the upper house failed to accommodate her emotional disabilities and fired her in retaliation after she claimed that she was sexually assaulted by an Assembly staff member.
The payout to a former legislative aide to state Sen. Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) is one of the largest settlements the state Legislature has negotiated in recent history. The Senate paid the six-figure sum from its operating budget, which is funded by taxpayer dollars.
The lawsuit listed the plaintiff as “Jane Doe” because the law allows alleged victims of sexual assault to use a pseudonym in civil cases to protect their privacy, said Micha Star Liberty, the woman’s attorney.
The resolution of the case could be a boon to the #MeToo movement at the Capitol and give legislative workers more confidence to speak up if they feel they’ve been wronged, said Wendy Musell, a Bay Area employment lawyer who testified in public hearings last year about a need for cultural change in Sacramento.
“It makes a huge difference in workers at the Capitol feeling like there’s a space to make these complaints and hold officials accountable,” Musell said. “Whether the Legislature thinks these issues occurred or didn’t occur, they have to address them and address them publicly.”
The settlement agreement, which was obtained by The Times through a public records request, says the Senate agreed in November to pay the former aide $280,000 for lost wages and general damages, an additional $50,000 to cover school loans incurred at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento and $20,000 for medical assistance and career counseling. In exchange, she agreed to drop her claims against the Senate and the individuals named in the lawsuit.
“For the sake of all involved, we want to move forward and focus on the work we need to do for the people of California,” Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins said in a statement about the settlement. “The result was acceptable to both sides and we are glad — for all parties — to move on with the business of the state.”
The former state Senate employee alleged that she was sexually assaulted after a night out in Sacramento with coworkers in late 2016. The encounter was reported to the police and both houses of the Legislature. An Assembly investigation did not substantiate the claim and police have not filed charges against the man she accused, who no longer works at the Capitol and denied any wrongdoing.
The woman sued the Senate in May, alleging that she was fired in September 2017 in retaliation for reporting the alleged rape, taking time off after the event and seeking special accommodations at work. She also claimed that her supervisors were aware of her emotional problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and panic attacks, at the time of her firing.
She asked the Senate to ban the man from the Senate floor and assign him to a new parking garage, according to the lawsuit. Both accommodations were denied.
“It’s important for not only this plaintiff, but anyone working in the Capitol building, to know that the Senate can and should take full responsibility of its unlawful conduct,” said Liberty, the woman’s lawyer. “We believe this settlement proves that point.”
Among other six-figure payouts, the Senate spent $117,200 in 1998 to settle a complaint against former Sen. Richard Polanco of Los Angeles, who was accused of retaliating against a former staff member who allegedly rejected his romantic advances. At the time, Polanco, a Democrat, declined to discuss the case.
The Senate also paid $120,000 in 2010 to a staff member of former Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood) who accused the legislator of sexual harassment. Wright declined to comment on the allegations at the time.
The Assembly settled a lawsuit for $100,000 in 2017 after an employee alleged that former Assemblyman Steve Fox (D-Palmdale) exposed himself to her. The house also paid $110,000 in 2015 to a different staffer who alleged that Fox sexually harassed her and didn’t compensate her for overtime and campaign work. Fox denied both allegations.
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