After a grueling three-week trial, it only took 45 minutes for a jury to come to a verdict on a suit against Tulare County, Paula Mendoza and Yessica Ozuna, both employees of Tulare County Animal Control. Paul Grenseman and Julia Jimenez filed suit in Tulare County Superior Court, against the County of Tulare, in November of 2014. The suit against the county was for discrimination, racial/ethnic and sexual harassment, failure to prevent discrimination and failure to prevent harassment as well as retaliation.
The jury of 12 unanimously found in favor of the county on all counts.
The Honorable Judge Bret Hillman said that three-week trials were rare, only happening once or twice a year. Concerning the verdict, he said that he has seen juries take five minutes, some weeks, or end in a mistrial–which happens when a jury cannot come to a decision.
Jimenez was hired in March of 2013 as one of two adoption coordinators. Grenseman was hired as Tulare County Animal Control Manager in 2011 after having worked for the county since 2000. On December 5th, 2013, both employees were put on administrative leave. Jimenez was subsequently fired on July 2, 2014, and Grenseman retired on June 5 of that year–two hours before he would have been fired.
Grenseman and Jimenez were put on administration leave after Paula Mendoza, a kennel worker, complained to Tim Lutz, Director of Fiscal Services, who was Grenseman’s direct supervisor. Lutz reported that during their meeting Mendoza was visibly upset, shaking, and appeared fearful of retaliation by her boss, Grenseman. Lutz asked Mendoza to tell him what was happening at Animal Control and then he asked her to put everything in writing that evening.
The next day, after an early morning meeting with the upper management of Health and Human Services (HHSA) over Mendoza’s accusations, it was decided to put Grenseman and Jimenez on administration leave so an investigation could proceed. Because of the perceived intimidating work environment created by Grenseman and Jimenez, the county felt that an effective investigation could not take place with the two employees still at the workplace.
The county based its final decision to terminate Grenseman and Jimenez on an investigation that was conducted by Wylene Luoma, a former lawyer and Human Resources officer for Tulare County. Luoma was chosen to conduct the investigation because she had completed approximately 150 prior investigations.
After a three-month investigation and 400 hours of interviews, Luoma recommended the dismissal of Grenseman and Jimenez. Her findings alleged that Jimenez was guilty of theft, misusing county vehicles, falsifying her time card, drinking while at work, and dressing provocatively.
Grenseman was found to be insubordinate to his supervisors and an incompetent manager. He was also found to have brought a gun to work and was accused of showing Jimenez favoritism to the point it created an intolerable work environment for the other animal control workers.
Luoma based these findings on the testimony of 17 witnesses.
Melo and Sarsfield, the attorney team for Grenseman and Jimenez, considered Luoma’s investigation lacking in merit. They alleged that Luoma’s investigation did not include witnesses who were supportive of Grenseman and Jimenez. Nor, they contend, did Luoma inquire into the motive why Mendoza might have lied about Jimenez or why Mendoza might have created a hostile work environment for Jimenez.
Specifically, they claim 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 was revealed during discovery that Mendoza drove her husband to and from the arson site at the time of the commission of the crime.
The jurors were never made aware of Mendoza’s involvement in the arson because the evidence was not permitted. Because the defense successfully convinced the jurors that the arson was irrelevant, they saw no motive for Mendoza to lie about Jimenez.
Melo and Sarsfield also claim that Luoma did not collect corroborating evidence to support the witnesses’ statements, such as cell phone records, sales receipts, video surveillance or photos. One example of this is that Luoma accused Jimenez of counterfeiting Woodlake High School football game tickets but, even though she had one of the tickets, she did not confirm that it was real and assumed the ticket was a fake.
Of all the witnesses interviewed, Mendoza refused to be recorded. All other witnesses were recorded and Jimenez’ recording was used against her during the trial. Mendoza’s reasoning was that she was fearful that Grenseman would get a hold of the recording, even though she was informed that Grenseman would see a written report of the interview.
Melo and Sarsfield considered the investigation a sham because of the lack of supporting evidence of Mendoza’s testimony and the lack of objective corroboration of the accusations.
Luoma’s testimony during the trial concerning her investigation made it clear that she did not thoroughly understand the county’s dress code, did not know that adoption coordinators have irregular work hours, and did not understand the difference between a “hold” and a quarantined animal. She also did not understand that Grenseman had to go through a formal firearms training to be hired as the Animal Control manager, and that he and the other animal control officers carried guns.
During the trial, Melo and Sarsfield described what they claimed was a hostile work environment created by Mendoza, Ozuna and several of the animal control officers. This included anonymous letters and a fake Facebook page created by an animal control employee that accused Jimenez as being a “slut, a drunk, a bitch” and insinuated she was having multiple affairs. Melo and Sarsfield also allege that Jimenez was sexually harassed by the Animal Control employees. Mendoza, Ozuna and two animal control officers admitted that they regularly joked in the workplace about Jimenez’ breasts, calling them “the Twins” or “weapons of mass destruction.” Twice, coworkers touched Jimenez’ breast.
During closing statements, lawyers for each side accused the other’s clients of lying. During the trial Mendoza, Ozuna, and two Animal Control officers gave inconsistent and contradictory testimonies, that witnesses at times called false, but so did Jimenez. As for Grenseman’s testimony, many times he could not sufficiently answer because he had suffered a heart attack, allegedly because of the stress over how the county had treated him. As a result his short term memory was impaired.
In the end, it was left to the jury to decide who was telling the truth and who lied. They delivered a decision similar to HHSA management and Luoma, coming down on the side of Paula Mendoza over Julia Jimenez.
The law firm of Melo and Sarsfield is consulting with its clients over the next few days as to whether to appeal.