Darlene Mata, Hanford Community Development director currently on an extended medical leave, is suing the city and Council Members Art Brieno and Francisco Ramirez, in a discrimination lawsuit seeking a judgment for lost earnings and benefits.
The suit filed in Kings County Superior Court on March 16 follows unsuccessful attempts by Mata and her attorney to reach a settlement with the city.
During Mata’s absence the city community development department, a key city entity, has been run by Mary Beatie, a temporary head from Visalia who is a member of the City of Visalia Planning Commission. The development department is inundated with work, according to staff.
The seeds of the lawsuit were planted when Mata, who has been community development director for nearly eight years, filed a complaint with the city on January 6, 2021 alleging, according to the lawsuit, that she had been harassed, discriminated against on the basis of gender, had her privacy invaded, had confidential personal information disclosed, been retaliated against and been portrayed in a false light. She was seeking $1.6 million from the city as a result of her complaint.
The city rejected her claim on March 5, 2021, according to the lawsuit. It is routine for the city to reject claims.
The lawsuit filed March 16 makes many of the same claims alleging hostile work environment, hostile work environment on the basis of a disability, discrimination on the basis of a disability, discrimination on the basis of gender, failure to prevent retaliation and discrimination, unlawful retaliation in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act, intrusion into private affairs, disclosure of private materials and false light which means creating a false impression. The suit alleges Brieno and Ramirez portrayed her in a false light.
The first allegedly illegal treatment of her occurred in July 2019, according to the lawsuit.
The suit alleges that the city failed to satisfy its legal requirement to take immediate and appropriate corrective action.
The suit alleges that Brieno publicly admonished her during a city council meeting for being “heavy handed” in July 2020. This was in reference to Mata’s efforts to have various zoning and other violations corrected at the Aguilar & Sons Automotive, 330 E. 7th Street in downtown Hanford. Brieno advocated for Aguilar who also received support during the same meeting from various public speakers during the public comment period.
In Mata’s suit there is reference to the city attorney’s July 13, 2020 admonishment of Brieno in an email not to make public statements of a personal nature, involving medical conditions or job performances involving city staff.
As a result of the alleged acts by Brieno, Ramirez, and the city, the lawsuit says Mata took medical leave in July 2020 and then in August 2020. In November 2020 she took an extended medical leave.
The lawsuit referred to an independent investigator being hired by the city to examine Mata’s claims. The investigator concluded, according to the suit, that 14 of Mata’s 16 claims were supported by evidence. Among these claims was a statement allegedly made by Brieno to a former city manager that Mata should be fired.
The lawsuit recites Brieno’s unanimous censure by the city council on March 2, 2021 for unlawful harassment, discrimination and retaliation against Mata. As a result of the censure Brieno was stripped of his city council committee assignments and banned to travel on city business.
The lawsuit alleges that Ramirez sought to undermine the censure by requesting on June 15, 2021 that Brieno be allowed to serve on a city committee.
Mata demands a jury trial in her quest for legal relief.
Brieno and Ramirez could not be reached for comment.