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March 29, 2020

Jail captain files retaliation suit

A Santa Clara County jail captain escorted off the job amid claims that she lied to a superior is now suing her former employer for racism, ageism and gender discrimination.

In a lawsuit filed Nov. 13 in Santa Clara County Superior Court, Amy Le says the Sheriff’s Office effectively forced her to resign in retaliation for alerting higher-ups about a female lieutenant’s sexual harassment complaint against a high-ranking officer.

Le, a 30-year agency veteran, asks for “no less than” $5 million to make up for lost wages and benefits and emotional distress.

A sheriff’s spokesman referred a request for comment to the county’s legal staff. County Counsel James Williams declined to comment.

Le made the news in early June when she was tearfully forced out of Elmwood Correctional Facility. The exit came as a shock to Le, who tirelessly campaigned for Sheriff Laurie Smith’s election to a sixth term and was promoted to captain a month after the 2018 general election.

Sheriff’s officials explained Le’s ouster as having something to do with her lying about how she raised money for an inmate-built gazebo, barbecue and Zen garden rest area. Le denied having misled anyone and opted to take an early retirement just so she could tell her side of the story. She went to the press a few months ago to defend her reputation, but the lawsuit obtained this week by this reporter offers some previously undisclosed details about Assistant Sheriff Eric Taylor.

In her lawsuit, Le says her problems with Taylor began right after her promotion when he canceled a vacation she had planned months earlier. Le says her supervisor generally “acted in a hostile manner” toward her based on her age, nationality and gender and that he told her peers that she was “unethical” and tried to undermine her authority. On Feb. 24, Le says she told Undersheriff Rick Sung and Capt. Michael Doty that she’d like to file a complaint against Taylor for setting her up to fail.

“From the first day I was promoted, A.S. Taylor treated me differently, belittled me and held me to standards that he did not require of other captains,” Le’s lawsuit states.
Le says Sung talked her out of filing a formal complaint. After that, a few months went by before the gazebo incident made headlines.

According to Le, she wanted to build the gazebo to “express her gratitude for the many opportunities made available to her throughout the years at the Sheriff’s Office.” She envisioned a “peaceful and relaxing” break area for officers and staff and thought the project would give female inmates a chance to learn new skills.

To that end, she oversaw the construction of the “Elmwood Gratitude Garden,” a 23-by-12-foot alcove with a grill, an arbor and benches. Money for the project came from donations from Le’s husband, the Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers’ Association—for which she served as president in the few years before her promotion—and from her own pocket.

Construction wrapped up in time to celebrate National Correctional Officers Week, says Le, who planned to invite Assemblyman Evan Low and Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez to the site on May 6 to recognize jail staff for their work. Smith, Sung and Taylor put the kibosh on the ribbon-cutting, however. On May 17, they had Capt. Timothy Davis red tag the garden. “Notably,” per Le’s lawsuit, “Davis had previously built arbors at the Elmwood Correctional Facility that were similar to the Elmwood Gratitude Garden, and there had been no issue with them.”

On May 28, Le says she reported to Doty the sexual harassment claim made by a female lieutenant against Taylor. Two days later, Doty reportedly told Le to have the complainant meet with him directly. And a day after that, Le was hand-delivered a letter informing her that she was being placed on administrative leave for making “false statements to a superior officer when questioned about soliciting donations” for the gazebo project from “county employees and outside agency contractors.”

“Le was escorted out of the workplace while crying about the false allegations made by the county against her to sully her previously immaculate reputation,” the lawsuit reads.

Internal Affairs ordered her to meet on June 12 for an investigative meeting. When Le’s request for more time was denied, the lawsuit says she “involuntarily resigned” to avoid going through a process that “she firmly expected would result in the county terminating her employment based on the false allegations leveled against her.”

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