Janie Sustaita, a former Visalia staffer for Assemblyman Devon Mathis, filed suit May 21 in the Sacramento County Superior Court against the State Assembly, the Assembly Rules Committee, Chief of Staff Justin Turner, Assemblyman Mathis, and Tosha Cherry, who works for the Rules Committee.
She is suing for wrongful termination, and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
Sustaita was hired by former Chief of Staff Sean Doherty and worked in Mathis’ Visalia district office as a field representative starting in October 2017. Doherty promoted Sustaita to interim district director in January or February of 2017.
Claims of Sexual Harassment and Bullying
During Sustaita’s time working at the district office in Visalia she claims that Mathis and current Chief of Staff Justin Turner sexually harassed and bullied her. Her suit also claims that she was paid less than her male counterparts because she was a female and “had a rich boyfriend.”
“Turner regularly called Sustaita a ‘bitch,’ ‘c***,’ and other derogatory terms and parroted Mathis’ behavior that a man “…would be better suited for the job than Sustaita, even though Sustaita was initially hired due to her knowledge of the district and her experience working with the agricultural community…,” the suit said.
A former Mathis campaign worker partially corroborated Sustaita’s claims, saying, “I’ve heard them call her names like that, although never to her face. She’s the one that Doherty always bragged about trying to sleep with since he got her the job.”
Sustaita said that work problems worsened when District Director Trevor Lewis quit in January or February of 2017. Lewis was her direct supervisor for four months. Sustaita says in the suit she was promoted to take Lewis’ place.
She said that over the next few months Mathis threatened to fire her several times and rose a fist to her in a threatening manner during a public event. She also claimed that Mathis refused to increase her pay to reflect her new position as district director.
Sustaita described Mathis in her suit as an alcoholic who she was expected to babysit during events “to minimize embarrassment to Mathis and those who worked for him.”
Sustaita insinuates in her suit that it was this same behavior of harassment and drinking by Mathis and Turner that precipitated Lewis’ resignation as district director.
Lewis was Mathis’ District Director from September 2015 to February 2017 and says it was quite the opposite.
“I could not work with Janie or Sean any longer.” He said that Sustaita was “lazy, sloppy and would sit in her office, shut the door, and do nothing.”
Lewis said that Doherty was “absolutely an alcoholic” and that if one reads Doherty’s lawsuit he is describing his own bad behavior and not Mathis’.
Lewis has returned to work as Mathis’ district director since Sustaita’s departure.
Same Office, Different View
Tara Adams has been Mathis’ field representative since March 2016 to the present and worked with Sustaita.
The one issue Adams and Sustaita agree on is that the toxic work environment got worse after Lewis quit.
Adams, a self described friendly person, says she tried to be nice to the newly employed Sustaita and help her learn the ropes. Sustaita would in turn spread lies about Adams and write emails to the Assembly Rules Committee to report on Adams so-called bad attitude.
After Lewis quit, Sustaita was appointed as the interim district director and became Adams’ supervisor. Adams said that Sustaita was a bully and that every day she came to work sick to her stomach.
“I carried the weight of that office on my shoulders,” said Adams. She said if she refused to do anything Sustaita would call Doherty complaining and say Adams needed to be fired. Sustaita, in turn, would spend her time in her office on the phone, talking to friends, or watching Netflix, according to Adams.
“It was the worst work experience of my life and I have worked retail at Toys R Us during the holidays,” said Adams.
Stripped of all Duties
According to the lawsuit, Sustaita reported the verbal abuse and physical threats to Tosha Cherry, Human Resource Director of the Assembly Rules Committee.
According to Sustaita, Cherry advised Sustaita to resign.
Because of Cherry’s disregard for the emotional distress she caused Sustaita and the toxic work environment, Sustaita took a medical leave of absence starting around May 13.
“The actions of Mathis, Turner, and Cherry, under these circumstances, created so much stress for Sustaita that she had to take a medical leave of absence,” said the lawsuit.
Adams said that it was no coincidence that Sustaita took her medical leave of absence soon after Doherty was fired by Assembly Rules in May of 2017.
Adams said that the weekend that Sustaita took her leave she took her daughter to a dance competition in Southern California and went to several theme parks. Sustaita then got married and she and her new husband enjoyed an extended honeymoon in Europe.
Sustaita returned from medical leave at the end of July of 2017. According to the lawsuit, “Mathis first action was to retaliate against her for the medical leave by striping her of all duties and responsibilities…… That day Sustaita gave up further attempts at obtaining equal treatment at Mathis’ office and left assembly employment.”
Sustaita said in her lawsuit that concerning Assembly Rules, “it was better to force harassed and bullied employees into resignation rather than conduct an investigation that might embarrass Assemblyman Mathis or the institution of the assembly.”
Adams countered, saying that Doherty never filed the paperwork with Assembly Rules that Sustaita was district director and her position dissolved after Doherty was fired.
Assembly Rules allegedly disagreed with Sustita that she had been stripped of her duties and wasn’t receiving fair compensation because they never saw her as a district director.
A Coordinated Effort
Adams and Lewis feel strongly that Sustaita and Doherty coordinated their legal efforts against Mathis to coincide with the 2018 election.
“There is not a doubt in my mind that they are working together and have had these lawsuits planned since Sean was fired,” said Adams.
Doherty, who was Mathis’ Chief of Staff from April 16, 2015, received a letter from the Assembly Rules Committee May 8, 2017 that he had been fired. Sustaita went on an extended medical leave of absence on approximately May 15, 2017. She returned for one day late in July before quitting permanently.
A former Mathis campaign worker said of Sustaita, “She’s held this in her back pocket for some time. I’m certain the Republican establishment is quite happy with her timing.”
Sustaita’s suit bears a striking resemblance to former Chief of Staff’s Sean Doherty’s lawsuit filed April 14. Doherty is also suing Mathis and the Assembly for wrongful termination and infliction of emotional distress.
Parts of Sustaita’s lawsuit seem to be directly lifted from Doherty’s suit.
Adams recalled that Sustaita described her relationship with Doherty as only professional but says their relationship went well beyond that. Adams said that Sustaita and Doherty were “best buddies” and would talk on the phone several times a day about personal matters.
Lewis reported that when Sustaita got married while on medical leave that Doherty not only attended her wedding but gave a speech.
Both Sustaita and Doherty are using lawyer Chad Morgan to represent them in their suits. From 2010 to 2014 Morgan was a campaign consultant and Chief of Staff for former Assemblyman Allan Monsoor (R Costa Mesa.) Morgan started practicing law four years ago but still maintains his consulting business, Visteva, alongside his law office in Riverside County.
In a twist of fate, both Morgan and Doherty both used their consulting companies to make money off their bosses’ campaigns while also serving as Chiefs of staff.
Getting a Piece of the Action
There was also an economic bond between Doherty and Sustaita.
On separate occasions, Sustaita told Lewis and Adams that for every donation she procured she would get a cut. Allegedly both Doherty and his wife Thanne, who was Mathis’ campaign chairperson in 2016, discussed the special arrangement with Sustaita.
In fact, Sustaita originally caught the attention of Doherty because of her lucrative contacts with the Tulare and Kings County agriculture community. According to Lewis, Sustaita was willing to hand over her ag contacts to Doherty upon employment.
“She liked to brag about stuff like that and didn’t know when to keep her mouth shut,” said Lewis.
Lewis said that Doherty also demanded his Rotary contacts for fundraising purposes but he refused. He said his job was to work for the constituents of the 26th district and not to fundraise.
Current Office Environment
Since her resignation Sustaita states in her suit that, in addition to financial hardship and difficulty in supporting her family, she has suffered from “anguish, nervousness, grief, anxiety, worry, shock, humiliation, and more.”
Adams said that her experience working with Doherty and Sustaita left her with such an emotional scar that it is difficult to talk about.
“She is a liar and a bully, plain and simple,” said Adams. “She doesn’t deserve to win one cent from her suit.”
Adams said that now that they are gone the toxic environment has cleansed itself. “I don’t have to go to work sick to my stomach fearing I might catch a knife in my back.”
Lewis and other staff members have returned to work in Mathis’ Visalia office since Doherty and Sustaita’s departure. Lewis said he returned as district director to support Mathis.
“No one has a bigger heart for the district than him,” said Lewis.