City reacts to gay lawsuit

Officials claim plaintiffs have 'personal agenda' in police sexual harassment case
By: Jon Brines Press Tribune Correspondent
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A month after three Roseville Police officers filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city and the police department, the city has responded to the complaint. Joy Rosenquist, spokeswoman for the plaintiff’s attorneys Goyette & Associates, said the city had the option of a demurrer, an objection challenging the legal sufficiency of a claim that would have delayed the process. “We are pleased the city answered the complaint,” Rosenquist said. Plaintiffs in the suit, Roseville Police Department Investigations Supervisor Sgt. Darin DeFreece, Officer Ken Marler and former narcotics detective Michael Lackl argue that police management created the hostile work environment by allowing ongoing sexually discriminatory harassment. The complaint names Roseville Police Chief Mike Blair, Sgt Kelby Newton and former City Manager Craig Robinson as defendants. It alleges Blair failed to stop and in some instances retaliated against those reporting harassment claims after they first surfaced in 2007. Roseville Communications Manager Megan MacPherson said there is another side to the story that litigation will bear out. “When these plaintiffs originally raised these issues, the city took them seriously and followed its policies and appropriate, legal procedures,” MacPherson said. “We listened. We engaged an independent, qualified, outside investigator, who concluded there was no harassment or retaliation.” In 2009, the city hired attorney Kelli Kennaday to look into the harassment claims. She reportedly interviewed witnesses then issued a report to the city in April 2009. MacPherson denied a request by the Press Tribune to release all or part of the report. When the Press Tribune sought the report through a California Public Records Act request dated Feb. 5, Roseville City Attorney Brita Bayless cited attorney-client privilege as a reason not to release the report. According to the plaintiffs’ attorney, the city’s investigator was allegedly hired to independently investigate the facts and not to represent either the city or the officers. The plaintiffs’ lawyer said the report was generated at the plaintiffs’ request before the lawsuit was even filed. “The plaintiffs voluntarily tried to work with the City to address the issues that have surfaced,” Rosenquist said. Rosenquist said the report has not been shared with the officers who participated in the investigation. “The City got ‘free evidence’ to defend itself early, knowing the lawsuit was coming,” Rosenquist said. “The so-called ‘neutral investigator’ is a defense litigator, who advises and defends employers on these very types of claims. Does this sound like a neutral investigator?” Despite the city’s statements in the media that the plaintiffs’ claims were “baseless,” Rosenquist said the city acknowledged that one claim was justified. MacPherson said the plaintiffs have other motives behind the lawsuit. “What’s most disheartening for the City of Roseville is that the plaintiffs have used the guise of sexual orientation discrimination to file a lawsuit that advances other personal agendas,” she said. “And it’s been done at the undue expense of all the dedicated members of the Roseville PD from all walks of life who serve and protect this community every day with professionalism and integrity.” According to e-mails obtained by the Press Tribune, Police Chief Michael Blair has asked his staff to refrain from comments in the media. In a Feb. 18 e-mail Blair sent to all police staff shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the chief issues a gag order to prevent staff from talking to the media. Four days later, Blair sent another e-mail after getting complaints from the plaintiffs’ attorney and the president of the Roseville Police Officers Union that officers posted more than a hundred comments on the Press Tribune’s article about confidential information surrounding the lawsuit. “This is a difficult time for all of our employees,” Blair wrote. “I am asking all of you to please refrain from posting inappropriate comments or grievances online. Although the anonymity makes people feel safe when posting, the reality is our entire department and community is hurt by the comments.” Then in a move seen by the plaintiff’s attorneys as inappropriate, Blair invited all police staff to speak with him one-on-one about the lawsuit. “Gayle (the chief’s assistant) will be scheduling some time for me to meet with all employees in the near future,” Blair wrote. “I hope you stop by.” Rosenquest said the police chief was attempting to stave off further damage that has already arisen within his department. “The e-mail to the department, however, also appears to have a secondary objective of prejudicing the officers, many of whom are obviously going to be testifying as witnesses,” Rosenquest said. The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages from the city and police department as well as a court order that would eliminate discriminatory, harassing and retaliatory effects of the past and bars them in the future, according to the complaint. With the emotions running high in this case Rosenquist thinks the discovery phase could take longer than six months. “I foresee a contentious future for discovery in this case, given the complicated and sensitive issues involved,” Rosenquist said. No trial date has been scheduled.