In a tentative ruling on April 18, the Honorable Bret Hillman ruled against the county and denied the County of Tulare and individual defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The defendants in this case are the County of Tulare, Tim Lutz, Health and Human Resources fiscal operations manager, Animal Control employees Paula Mendoza, Yessica Ozuna and Motor Pool former employee Shawn Mathis.
The plaintiffs are retired USMC Major Paul Grenseman and Julia Jimenez. The law firm of Melo and Sarsfield filed suit on behalf of the two former Tulare County Animal Control employees in Tulare County Superior Court on November 10, 2014. Pretrial discovery has been going on for the last 18 months.
The plaintiffs are suing the county for discrimination, racial/ethnic and sexual harassment, failure to prevent discrimination and failure to prevent harassment as well retaliation for objecting to, speaking out against, and complaining of illegal discrimination and harassment. By denying the motion for summary judgment, the judge is saying that the matter will be going to trial.
The county hired a Fresno firm, McCormick, Barstow, Sheppard, Wayte & Carruth instead of using one of their 20 lawyers on payroll. Lawyer Michael Woods, from the aforementioned firm, was assigned the case to defend the county. County Counselor Bales-Lange has not offered this paper an explanation as to why her highly paid staff attorneys are not on the case.
Grenseman and Jimenez put on paid leave, then fired
On December 5, 2013, both Grenseman and Jimenez were “walked off the job” and told that they were under investigation and being put on administrative leave. Jimenez was subsequently fired from her job on July 2, 2014 and Grenseman retired June 5, 2014, two hours before he would have been fired.
Grenseman was a commended Tulare County employee for 13 years and the facility manager of animal control for three. He started working for the county after a successful career in the US Marine Corps. Jimenez was the volunteer coordinator for animal control, and a former police officer. Grenseman was Jimenez’s immediate supervisor.
Mendoza was a coworker of Jimenez’ also working at the animal control as a kennel worker, cleaning kennels and euthanizing animals. Before being hired by the county, Mendoza was employed with the SPCA, but was terminated after it was discovered that she was allegedly engaging in cruelty to animals in the manner in which she was euthanizing them.
Grenseman and Jimenez’ terminations were a result of Mendoza’s accusations that Jimenez misused county property, drove while under the influence of alcohol, wore inappropriate clothing at work and exposed her breasts to obtain property for animal control, among other accusations. Mendoza further accused Grenseman of allowing Jimenez to engage in these behaviors and failing to take action against Jimenez.
Because of Mendoza’s allegations, Grenseman and Jimenez were escorted off animal control property and put on paid leave. Grenseman charges that because of the stress he suffered a heart attack on December 13, 2013. He survived, but as a result doctors placed a stent in his heart. Grenseman alleges that he continues to suffer medical problems related to the stress from the events attributed to county and other defendants.
Tulare County Human Resources launched an “investigation” into Mendoza’s accusations. Wylene Luoma, from human resources, was assigned to do the investigation. A report was generated that was not provided to either Grenseman or Jimenez until after their lawsuit was filed. Though Luoma’s report is central to the defense’s case, Melo and Sarsfield found that it was biased and not based in truth.
In his tentative ruling, Judge Hillman seemed to agree.
Melo and Sarsfield allege that during Luoma’s investigation she did not interview witnesses who could support or those who would contradict the terminations of Grenseman and Jimenez. Nor did Luoma inquire into the motive or possible biases Mendoza may have had to make such accusations about the plaintiffs.
Specifically, Luoma did not investigate the fact that Mendoza’s husband had been sentenced to prison for an arson where Jimenez’s husband, a firefighter, had been injured fighting the fire. Additionally it came out during discovery that Mendoza drove her husband to and from the arson site at the time of the commission of the crime.
Luoma’s investigation also did not include Jimenez’ complaints that Mendoza and Ozuna had been sexually harassing her by repeatedly touching Jimenez’s breasts and discussing Jimenez’s breast size and breast augmentation at the workplace. Jimenez had complained to the county to no avail.
Grenseman received complaints from Jimenez regarding the sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct by her co-workers. He then reported the complaints to his supervisor, Tim Lutz. But no action was taken against those persons involved in the harassment.
Inexplicably, Mendoza is still employed by animal control.
County Tries to Make Case to Dismiss Suit
The county was given an opportunity on April 19 to argue why Judge Hillman should reverse his tentative ruling and deny the plaintiffs their trial.
Woods started his defense by reviewing the multiple evidentiary objections by the plaintiffs that were granted by the judge. While Woods was explaining his displeasure with the number and substance of the objections, the judge had to stop him to say, “Your tone is angry. If you don’t agree with my ruling then fine, but you don’t get to be angry in my court.”
It appears that Woods never regained his composure, at times taking long pauses and jumbling his sentences.
Continuing his defense, Woods made the dangerous assumption that Judge Hillman did not write the tentative decision. Assuming a clerk wrote the ruling, he called the decision a “cut and paste” job. Woods expressed his discontent with the ruling because parts of the document appeared to be lifted from the plaintiff’s arguments. Woods rephrased his allegations and Judge Hillman had to interrupt the hearing again in order to tell Woods that he was wasting the court’s time by repeating the same thing.
Woods also claimed that the plaintiff’s case was not backed up with evidence. Woods said that there was no evidence that Grenseman and Jimenez were walked off their jobs, that Mendoza was fired for animal cruelty from the SPCA, or that any sexual harassment occurred. He also said that the arson case against Mendoza was irrelevant because the county did not know about it.
Woods’ central argument was that the facts in the plaintiff’s case mysteriously came to light after they were put on administrative leave. Woods claims that Jimenez concocted the entire story in order to sue the county after she was put on leave.
He also objected to Sarsfield’s characterization of Luoma’s investigation as full of hearsay and defective.
“The use of the report is critical to our case,” Woods said, again voicing his doubt that the judge drafted the tentative ruling because the ruling said that Luoma’s investigation was not interested in the truth and that it was biased – to which Judge Hillman had to interject again saying, “this is the fourth time that you have made the same point.”
In Woods’ final arguments he gave reasons as to why the case should be dropped for each of the county employees. In defense of Lutz, he said there was no legal precedent to sue for retaliation. In addition, the plaintiffs did not provide a motive for Lutz to retaliate against Grenseman or Jimenez.
He also pointed out that Lutz made a racist statement to Grenseman, who is Hispanic, but does not appear to be Hispanic. Woods claimed that because Lutz did not say the racist comment in front of Jimenez, who is obviously Hispanic, Lutz did not create a hostile work environment.
In regard to Mathis, Mendoza and Ozuna, Woods stated that touching an employee’s breasts does not constitute sexual harassment.
“Besides, with Ozuna, there was only one incident of touching Jimenez’ breasts,” he said.
John Sarsfield was in court to represent Grenseman and Jimenez and followed Woods’ arguments. He kept his presentation short.
He stated, “It is not unreasonable to describe Luoma’s investigation as a sham.”
There were several reasons on which he based his statement, but cited only one. Sarsfield pointed out that there was no investigation into Mendoza about the arson charge and the fact that Jimenez’s husband was injured during the fire which ultimately caused Mendoza’s husband to be sent to prison.
“That one fact alone would mean the report should be set aside,” he said.
Lastly, Sarsfield said that Mendoza and Ozuna essentially committed a sexual assault against Jimenez and that “we have more than enough evidence to present at trial.”
Trial is set to start on Monday, May 23.
“I am whole hearted looking forward to trial,” Grenseman said.