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Hilton v. Twain Harte Community Services District; and Does 1-20

United States District Court, E.D. California

August 28, 2014

YVONNE HILTON, Plaintiff,
v.
TWAIN HARTE COMMUNITY SERVICES DISTRICT; AND DOES 1-20, INCLUSIVE, Defendants.

ORDER DENYING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (Doc. 29)

SANDRA M. SNYDER, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Yvonne Hilton ("Hilton") filed this action against her former employer the Twain Harte Community Services District ("Twain Harte" or "the District") and Does 1-20, (collectively, "Defendants"), alleging that Hilton experienced a hostile work environment due to severe and pervasive sexual harassment, as well as gender discrimination and retaliation. Hilton contends that by their actions, former Board members Dennis Spisak, Bill Bryant, and District managers violated California's Fair Employment and Housing Act ("FEHA"). Before the Court in the above-styled and numbered cause of action are Defendants' "Motion for Summary Judgment/Adjudication, " filed April 14, 2014 (Doc. 29), Plaintiff's Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Opposition to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment/Adjudication, filed April 30, 2014 (Doc. 45), and Defendant's Reply Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment/Adjudication, filed May 7, 2014 (Doc. 46). The Court, having considered the record in this case, applicable law, and parties' briefs, will deny Defendant's motion.

BACKGROUND

I. Plaintiff's Facts[1]

Hilton, a 52-year-old Caucasian female, was an employee of Twain Harte Community Services District ("the District") from September 5, 2000 through June 17, 2011.

Hilton's Employment History with the District

When Hilton started at the District in September 2000, Carole Reyes ("Reyes") was the District's controller and Don Kasso ("Kasso") was its general manager. Hilton's first position was as the District's part-time receptionist. After approximately three months, Hilton transitioned into being a full-time customer service representative. Early in Hilton's tenure at the District, because Reyes was planning to retire, Reyes and Kasso asked her to train to replace Reyes as controller, which Hilton did for approximately three years.

In 2005, the District's Board approved Hilton as controller. From November 2005 through her termination, Hilton was employed as the District's controller (later titled "finance director"), a management-level position. As such, her responsibilities included preparing budgets, ensuring that the District complied with the Brown Act and conflict of interest issues, attending and making reports at Board of Directors' ("the Board") and committee meetings. Hilton also acted as secretary of the board. In that capacity her duties included preparing agendas for and taking minutes at Board meetings. For the duration of her employment, Hilton was the only female manager employed by the District. Hilton contends that at all times, she performed her job satisfactorily.

In 2008, the District terminated its then general manager, Michael Stacher ("Stacher"). The position was vacant for six months. At the direction of the Board, Hilton assumed the general manager's duties for the period between Stacher's termination and when the District hired Scot Moody as general manager. Hilton was not compensated for undertaking those additional duties. Hilton applied for the general manager position, but was told by Board member Bryant that the District "needed a man in charge." Hilton complained to Moody that she should have been compensated for her extra duties. Moody expressed agreement, but took no action.

Office Culture

Hilton alleges that the culture at the District fostered gender discrimination. As an example, she notes that the District operations manager referred to the female office staff as "skirts." District Fire Chief McCoy told Hilton that her husband needed "to get control of her." At some point, the District changed Hilton's job title from "Controller" to "Finance Director." Board Member William Bryant explained to several managers that one reason for changing Hilton's title was that they needed to "control the controller." Moody told Hilton that she was required to raise her hand to speak at meetings, whereas male managers were not required to do so. At all times during Hilton's employ at the District, she was the only female manager except for Carol Reyes, whom Hilton had replaced.

Hilton received some formal performance reviews during the time of her employment with the District. Hilton received her best performance review on July 5, 2006, the result of which was a 4.2 rating out of a possible five. During Moody's tenure as general manager, he never gave Hilton a formal review. When Hilton asked Moody if he would conduct one, he told her that she was doing so well that it was unnecessary. In December 2010, Hilton heard from RaeLene Brown (an official with the union who was possibly going to represent the workers at the District), that Moody was building a case to terminate Hilton.

Hilton's Internal Complaints

In her allegations, Hilton also catalogues her early experience with sexual harassment at the District. In 2002-03, Dennis Spisak ("Spisak") was a member of the District's Board. Hilton alleges that during this time she was the victim of sexual harassment as a result of Spisak's conduct. Hilton alleges that while in the office of the District, Spisak put his hands on Hilton's shoulders and whispered, "I would love to sleep with you." Spisak invited Hilton to come to his house for sex while his wife was at work. He asked Hilton to meet him at a corner after a Board meeting. When Spisak was in the office, he grabbed Hilton and tried to kiss her.

In 2003, Hilton filed a complaint with the District against Spisak. Spisak threatened Hilton with her job for complaining about the incidents to the general manager. As a result of the investigation into the alleged sexual harassment, the District asked Spisak to resign from the Board, which he did. As part of the settlement, Spisak agreed to avoid contact with Hilton.

Despite resolution of the 2003 sexual harassment complaint, Hilton alleges that Spisak continued his violative conduct. Hilton contends that from the time of Spisak's Board resignation through June 16, 2011 (the day before Hilton was terminated), Spisak made regular visits to the District's offices. He visited to pay his bill, introduce himself, chat with employees, and chat with the general manager.

When Kasso was general manager, Spisak would visit his office to chat. Hilton alleges that during those visits, Spisak pointedly attempted to engage her in conversation and she would complain to Kasso about Spisak's conduct. Kasso told Hilton that he could not keep Spisak out of the District office because it was a public building.

When Stacher became general manager, Spisak came by to see him on a regular basis. Hilton expressed her discomfort to Stacher, but Stacher took no preventative measures to protect Hilton from the unwanted attention. On several occasions, Spisak visited Pete Kampa's office to chat. Hilton asked to be protected from Spisak, but was told she would have to file and pay for a restraining order against him.

Later, when Moody was general manager, Hilton complained to him about Spisak's conduct and ongoing efforts to engage in contact with her. Hilton told Moody how contact with Spisak caused her to begin shaking, crying, and become nauseated. Moody responded that he was powerless to stop Spisak's visits "because it's a public agency that [Spisak] can come in whenever [he] want[s]." On one occasion, Spisak brought a local political candidate, Evan Royce, to the District office. Spisak came to Hilton's office and introduced Royce to Hilton. Hilton complained to Moody about the incident. Moody did not substantively respond to Hilton's complaint, but said, "why didn't [Spisak] introduce the new candidate to me?" Spisak continued to visit the District office. On these occasions, he rapped on Hilton's window and attempted to engage her in conversation in the parking lot, he also attempted to stop her while she was walking to her car or into the office. Hilton complained about this perceived harassment to Moody. Moody responded that there was nothing he could do.

In 2009, William Bryant ("Bryant") was a member of the District's Board. Hilton alleges that during this time she was the victim of gender discrimination as a result of Bryant's conduct. Bryant insisted that she not be allowed to attend a business conference, despite an existing budget approving it. Bryant had never complained about any of the male managers attending conferences. Hilton took her complaint to Moody, who told her that she would have to file a formal grievance.

In August of 2009, Hilton did file a formal grievance against Bryant, then a current Board member. Hilton alleged years of what she perceived as discrimination and harassment by Bryant because of her gender. The District commenced an investigation, led by Dennis Timoney ("Timoney") of SDRMA. Timoney's report "support[ed Hilton's] allegation that she was subject to harassing conduct by Director Bryant...." Timoney found that Bryant had engaged in harassing conduct and that he had discriminated against Hilton on the basis of her gender. At the close of the investigation, Timoney offered to conduct discrimination and harassment training for the directors, free of charge. Hilton encouraged Moody to take advantage of the training opportunity, but detected that Moody was irritated with the request. The Board never conducted any such training. As a result of Timoney's investigation, the District's insurance company advised Bryant to resign his Board position, which he did in October 2009.

Despite Bryant's resignation, from that time until shortly before Hilton was terminated, Bryant was a regular visitor to the District's offices. During those visits he attempted to engage Hilton's receptionist in lengthy conversations. Bryant would also spend lengthy visits with Moody, whose office door Hilton shared. Bryant attempted to "chat [Hilton] up." Hilton complained to Moody, sharing with him that Bryant's visits caused her to begin shaking, crying, and become nauseated. Hilton asked Moody if he could stop Bryant from coming to the office. Moody responded that nothing could be done to stop Bryant "because it's a public agency that [he] can come in whenever [he] want[s]."

Hilton continued to request that Moody protect her from Spisak and Bryant. Over the course of 2011, her last year with the District, she had conversations with Moody about her perceived harassment. In her final six months at the District, those conversations became more frequent. In response, Moody told Hilton that he would speak with Spisak and Bryant. Hilton believes that Moody never took any action because the alleged harassment continued.

Plaintiff's Interactions with the Board of Directors

As part of her job responsibilities, Hilton attended District Board meetings. As her job required it, she was more familiar with Brown Act compliance requirements than Moody or the Board, though the Board and employees had a shared responsibility to comply with the Act. During Board meetings Hilton was most vocal about Brown Act compliance. Either Hilton's actions giving compliance recommendations or the style in which she did so seemingly annoyed Moody and the Board. Moody expressed to Hilton that he was not annoyed about her interjecting at Board meetings, rather, he objected to the forcefulness with which she did it. Moody told Hilton that, despite her role as Finance Director, Board members had told him that unless spoken to, Hilton should not speak at Board meetings. On one occasion, Moody told Hilton that to speak at Board meetings she was required to raise her hand. Male managers were not so required.

At a finance meeting in March 2010, committee members excused Hilton - still the Finance Director - from the ongoing meeting. After the meeting, Hilton asked Moody why she had been asked to leave. He replied, "that's so the men could talk." Repeatedly, and again on this occasion, Hilton complained to Moody about her inferior treatment at the hand of the Board and about how other female staff were treated based on their gender. Moody told Hilton to be aware that a director "might" tell Moody to "write a check for any sum of money to get rid of [Hilton]." Hilton understood this as a threat to terminate her because she complained about gender discrimination.

Also in 2010, Hilton was involved in an incident at the office with a District customer. The customer had become belligerent with the receptionist. Hilton came to provide assistance to the staff member. When Hilton got involved the customer was rude, began yelling, and swore at her. The customer subsequently complained to Maxwell and Johnson, who were not present at the time of the incident. No investigation followed. Moody wrote a letter to the male customer, telling him that if he came to the District office, he was allowed to speak to Moody and no one else. Based on that letter, Hilton believed that even if Moody could not prohibit the public from entering the building, he did have control over what a member of the public could do while inside the building.

In May 2011, Hilton send an email to Director Gordon Molloy clarifying a Brown Act issue and requesting that all work asked of her staff come through her first. Prior to sending that e-mail, Hilton had sent it to Moody for approval. Moody approved the e-mail, but warned Hilton to "be careful of Gordon [Malloy, a Board member]. He doesn't like to be told what to do by a woman."

At a Board meeting on June 9, 2011, Hilton responded to a Board member's question. During her response, the current President of the Board, Packy Maxwell ("Maxwell"), interrupted Hilton and spoke over her. Another Board member, James Johnson, looked at Hilton and made a "slicing" gesture at her, by which she understood he meant "shut up." Hilton had had a similar experience at a previous Board meeting, when then Board member Bryant had directed the same gesture at her. She never saw a Board member direct such a gesture at any male manager, nor had she witnessed a male manager being interrupted in a similar context.

Hilton's Termination: June 17, 2011

On the afternoon of June 16, 2011, Spisak visited the office and tried to engage with Hilton. Since Moody was out of the office that afternoon, Hilton spoke with Moody the next morning, June 17, 2011, and expressed to him how Spisak had upset her. That same afternoon, Moody terminated Hilton. Moody supplied Hilton no justification for the decision.

Severance and Benefit Payments

Other manager-level employees had been terminated in 2011 and they had all received payment for their accumulated sick days and other benefits. Hilton came to know this because in her role as financial officer, she had written a severance check which included accumulated sick pay to Paul Krawchuk's ("Krawchuck") when he had been terminated. The District had terminated Krawchuk because it determined that he had engaged in business dealings which constituted conflicts of interest and he had also made inappropriate jokes concerning race. Krawchuk received three ...


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