Gay ex-Merced County sheriff's deputy wins claim over firing

mnorth@mercedsunstar.comSeptember 20, 2012 

— A former Merced County sheriff's deputy who claims he was wrongfully terminated from his position because he's gay won his arbitration case against the county earlier this week.

Ricardo Olguin, 33, claimed he was harassed because of his sexual orientation until he was wrongfully terminated in 2011.

In a claim filed in San Francisco Superior Court earlier this year, Olguin, who was hired by the department in 2008, detailed several instances when he says he was harassed by other employees.

Among the examples, Olguin claimed his property was vandalized with the words "homo," "fag" and "snitch."

A decision from a hearing officer Monday found that the county wasn't able to prove Olguin engaged in dishonesty or misrepresentation, for which he was supposedly terminated.

A future payout to Olguin could include compensation for lost wages and benefits. From the start of the case, Olguin said he was hoping for about $5 million, but any possible award is expected to be significantly less.

Olguin also was hoping for reinstatement with the department so he could clear his name, but the arbitrator instead allowed his termination to be reclassified as a resignation.

"Under the circumstances, it would not be appropriate to return the appellant to his prior position as a deputy sheriff with the county -- he is not going to be trusted by his superiors, and one cannot force trust upon another person," according to the decision.

Richard Flores, assistant county counsel, said the county may consider challenging the decision. He added that during the county's review of the decision, it appears the hearing officer misapplied some case law.

While there is the potential for back pay, the $5 million figure used by Olguin is "an unreal number," Flores said.

Nevertheless, Olguin said he was pleased with the decision and characterized the situation he faced at the Sheriff's Department as "homophobia."

He lives in the Bay Area now but said he plans to return to the Central Valley to start looking for work around Modesto or Ceres. He said he doesn't think the recent controversy will negatively impact his chances of gaining employment.

Olguin's attorney, Barry Bennett, said it's too early to decide what any possible payout might total, because determining factors still need to be figured out. But he said the hearing officer's conclusion is a step in the right direction.

"Obviously, we're pleased that she recognized that there really was no basis for termination," Bennett said.

During the hearing, it wasn't necessary to prove why Olguin was terminated, Bennett said. Instead, it needed to be shown that there was no cause to terminate him.

"Though the issue was brought up, the case didn't revolve around Olguin's sexuality," Bennett said.

The ordeal didn't need to go as far as it did, Bennett said.

"Olguin has had to suffer terribly during this time, and that's the shame of it all," Bennett said, adding that back pay doesn't make up for Olguin losing his job.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.

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