City settles lawsuit, pays $25K

Scot Smithee

The City of Gilroy announced May 7 that it has settled a wrongful termination lawsuit filed in 2017 by a former employee of the city’s police department. Both the plaintiff and defendants hailed the settlement as a success.

The settlement includes a full dismissal of the lawsuit filed by plaintiff Patricia Harrell, in exchange for a $25,000 payment to the trust account of the Costanzo Law Firm, according to the city’s press release. Harrell hired the Costanzo firm to file the lawsuit and represent her throughout the legal proceedings.

Furthermore, the city agreed to allow Harrell to change her employment status to “resignation” instead of “termination,” according to the city.

Harrell was fired as a public safety dispatcher for the City of Gilroy in March 2016, according to court documents. She filed a lawsuit against the city, police department and numerous former and current city employees—as well as her union, AFSCME—in November 2017.

Gilroy Police Chief Scot Smithee said of the settlement, “The Gilroy Police Department is an outstanding organization that I am proud to lead. We hold ourselves to very high standards and did so in the case of Ms. Harrell’s termination. I am pleased to put this behind us so we can focus solely on service to the community.”

Harrell’s attorney, Andrea Justo, said her client is pleased with the settlement outcome.

“Ms. Harrell is finally able to have some closure and move on with her life,” Justo said in a statement. “She has suffered greatly, not only from personal attacks during her employment but after this lawsuit was filed. As part of the settlement, the city has agreed to accept our client’s resignation in lieu of the proverbial scarlet designation of having been terminated.”

While Harrell’s initial lawsuit contained many lurid claims of a culture of sexual activity and harassment within the police department, she amended her complaint multiple times as the defendants’ attorneys moved to dismiss many of her claims in federal court. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. Northern District of California.

The city’s May 7 press release struck a victorious tone describing the diminishing list of complaints and defendants named in Harrell’s initial lawsuit: “Through a series of motions filed by the city and also AFSCME, the city prevailed in significantly narrowing the scope of Ms. Harrell’s case.”

As of this week, Harrell’s complaint included a total of six causes of action, and the only defendants in the lawsuit were the City of Gilroy and the police department. None of the remaining allegations had anything to do with sexual activity or harassment.

The settlement announced May 7 occurred as the case was proceeding through the discovery, or evidence sharing, phase. It also followed a failed attempt to mediate the lawsuit earlier this year.

“Although the city has maintained all along that Ms. Harrell’s case had no merit and felt strongly as discovery progressed that the evidence did not support her remaining claims, it decided to settle the case at this juncture on terms it viewed as exceedingly favorable to the city when weighed against the cost of continuing litigation of the case,” reads the city’s press release.

Gilroy Mayor Roland Velasco added, “Our police department works very hard to protect and serve all people who live and work in Gilroy in a professional and ethical manner. I am confident that the department will continue to serve with professionalism and integrity.”

Justo, however, said the lawsuit and settlement were successful in holding the city and police department accountable.

“We believe this contentious lawsuit demonstrates that no organization is above the law; police departments and public entities are not immune from unlawful discrimination, harassment and retaliation,” Justo’s statement said.

Harrell’s six remaining causes of action against the city and police department, which were dismissed by the settlement, were: age discrimination, gender discrimination, failure to prevent discrimination and harassment, failure to investigate or take corrective action, retaliation and Title VII retaliation.

Harrell, who is in her 50s, was fired from her job as a Gilroy police and fire dispatcher following an internal investigation into a complaint that she made racially insensitive remarks to a colleague and mistreated trainees, according to documents filed in court in relation to the lawsuit.

The city is represented in the Harrell case by attorneys from the Hirschfeld Kraemer firm, based in San Francisco.

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