A judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought by a Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control officer who alleged she was sexually harassed by a co-worker and that false complaints the colleague filed against her forced her to accept a demotion out of fear she could lose her job.
On June 26, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Douglas Stern heard arguments on a motion by county attorneys to toss plaintiff Sara Berrelleza’s claims for sex and gender harassment, whistleblower retaliation and general retaliation. Stern took the issues under submission and issued a final ruling Tuesday.
Berrelleza was hired by the department in 2008 and reached the rank of animal control officer III in 2015, the suit stated. She was assigned to the Downey facility when Marcos Vega, an animal control III supervisor, was reassigned there from the Baldwin Park facility in June 2018 because of a sexual harassment complaint made against him there, according to the suit.
Shortly thereafter, Vega allegedly began making inappropriate remarks to Berrelleza, touched her without permission and stared at her, the suit filed in November 2019 alleged.
“On numerous occasions, Marcos Vega followed me into the kennels or around the shelter when there was no need for him to do so,” Berrelleza said in a sworn declaration. “I never welcomed or invited any romantic attention from Marcos Vega.”
An instructor for the county’s sexual harassment training acknowledged that Vega’s conduct amounted to sexual harassment, the suit stated. But when Berrelleza complained about Vega to her immediate supervisor, the boss “quickly cut plaintiff off and abruptly ended the conversation,” the suit stated.
That same day, Berrelleza asked to speak with the manager of the Downey facility, but the manager allegedly told her that an internal complaint was filed against her and that she was being transferred to the Baldwin Park animal care center, increasing the daily commute to time to work considerably for the plaintiff.
“The complaint was orchestrated and instigated by Marcos Vega,” the suit alleged.
Most of the Baldwin Park center supervisors were friends of Vega and Berrelleza was given an isolated work space and was not given overtime opportunities offered to others of her rank, the suit stated. The Baldwin Park manager allegedly issued her a “bogus written reprimand” in November 2018.
Days later, she asked the department’s human resources manager for a transfer to the Carson facility, but never received a reply, according to the suit.
In March 2019, the human resources manager told her she could either accept a demotion to animal control officer II and a transfer to the Norwalk facility, or be involuntarily reduced in rank to an animal control officer I, the suit stated.
“(Berrelleza) accepted the voluntary reduction in rank because she was a single mother in sole support for her children and was terrified that she would be terminated,” the suit stated. “(She) was never interviewed or shown any details or documents about the alleged complaints made against her that were orchestrated by Vega and her supervisor.”
But according to Stern’s ruling, the county attorneys provided evidence in their court papers that no further harassment occurred after Berrelleza reported Vega’s alleged misconduct and that the county took appropriate action after investigating the plaintiff’s complaints.
In addition, Animal Care and Control management had no way of knowing in advance that Vega would allegedly harass Berrelleza, according to the judge, who also found that her retaliation claims were based on hearsay evidence.