The City of Gilroy said this month that accusations by a former public safety employee that she was harassed and fired for refusing to engage in sexual promiscuity within the Gilroy Police Department are not worthy of the court’s consideration, and should be dismissed.
The court papers filed by the city this month were its first official response to accusations by Patricia Harrell that she was wrongfully terminated in 2016.
An amended complaint filed in December 2017 by Harrell, a former senior public safety communicator for the Gilroy Police Department, names five current and former officers and other police department staff for fostering, encouraging or turning a blind eye to the discrimination and unfair treatment that Harrell alleges in the lawsuit.
One of those named by Harrell in her amended complaint is former Gilroy Police Chief Denise Sellers (formerly Turner), who retired in 2016.
The lawsuit was transferred to the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California shortly after Harrell filed her initial complaint in the local superior court in August 2017.
A hearing on the city’s motion to dismiss the case will take place May 31 at the federal courthouse in San Jose.
“We are confident that when this lengthy legal process is concluded, the judge will rule in favor of the City of Gilroy and in particular, in favor of those who serve the city as members of our highly professional police department,” said LeeAnn McPhillips, Gilroy’s Human Resources Director and Risk Manager. “While legal cases often take a long time to resolve, we fully respect the process and know the judge will fairly evaluate all the facts before rendering a decision.”
The city requested the lawsuit’s transfer to federal court, said McPhillips, who is also one of the defendants named in Harrell’s amended complaint.
One of Harrell’s 15 “causes of action” alleges that the city and its police department violated her civil rights by denying her due process in an investigative review of her employment while she was working for Gilroy police. “Given that a federal question was included in the complaint, defendants can remove the entire case to federal court,” McPhillips said.
The city hired San Francisco law firm Hirschfeld Kraemer LLP to represent the City of Gilroy and the police department in the lawsuit. On Feb. 1, the firm filed arguments urging the federal court to dismiss the lawsuit altogether, “with prejudice.”
The filing does not specifically address most of the lurid allegations in Harrell’s 189-point, 68-page complaint, but argues that she and her attorneys have flouted the court’s previous instructions and other established legal regulations.
“(Harrell) has demonstrated a repeated pattern of playing ‘fast and loose’ with the Court’s rules and procedures,” reads the city’s Feb. 1 filing. “This pattern is again evident in (Harrell’s) decision to give herself free rein to rework and expand (her previous complaints) way beyond the leave to amend granted by the Court…”
‘Culture of sex’
Harrell was fired from the Gilroy Police Department in March 2016 after 26 years of employment at the department. Her complaint lists numerous violations by the city, the police department and other defendants that contributed to her termination: age discrimination, gender discrimination, sexual harassment, failure to investigate or take corrective action, retaliation, negligence, assault and others.
Harrell names her former union—American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—as well as her union representative for failing to adequately represent her as she appealed disciplinary actions and employment reviews that concluded with her firing.
Harrell, who has been “happily married for 29 years,” lists numerous instances illustrating “a culture of sexual activity within the department” in her complaint, which was filed on her behalf by the San Jose based Costanzo Law Firm.
She accuses two Gilroy police officers of having sexual intercourse with members of the Gilroy Police Explorers, a youth public safety program that admits children as young as 14.
Harrell also details that Gilroy police officers and staff would participate in “key” parties when off duty, in which a participant would draw a car key from a bowl and have sex with the owner of that key. At other parties, Harrell observed male and female officers groping and fondling each other, her complaint states. On one occasion, a female colleague of Harrell’s showed attendees at a party a piercing on her genitalia in the presence of children, she said in court papers.
Harrell alleged she was fired for warning other dispatchers about the behavior. She said she was threatened, investigated, harassed, called names and subjected to unwanted sexual advances as a result of speaking out against the alleged sexually charged work environment and off-duty parties.
She was fired three years before her full retirement age, according to her complaint. Harrell claims she has suffered lost income and other financial benefits, personal injury, emotional and mental distress, humiliation and anguish.
Her complaint does not specify what dollar amount she is seeking in damages.
Sellers did not reply to a phone call requesting comment. In August, she denied allegations and told the Dispatch that Harrell was “a disgruntled employee making accusations that aren’t true.”
Disciplined officer named in suit
One of the officers named in Harrell’s amended complaint—Royce Heath—was disciplined by his superiors, though the reason was never revealed. City staff say they cannot talk about the specifics of their case against Heath, which began seven months before Harrell filed her lawsuit.
Heath was demoted from the rank of captain to officer in 2017, based on an alleged violation of departmental policy or city rules that happened years prior, according to his attorney Dennis Balsamo.
Heath and Balsamo are fighting the disciplinary action, and Balsamo said he is waiting on the city to respond to his latest offer. Balsamo argued the police department’s effort to demote Heath, who remains out on leave from the department, was past the statute of limitations from when his alleged violation occurred.
“He should be fully reinstated to where he was at the time the city brought the charges and attempted to discipline him,” Balsamo said.
Balsamo is not representing Heath in defense of Harrell’s lawsuit. He said the city’s attorney is representing Heath and “all the main defendants” in the Harrell lawsuit.