Former Merced Irrigation District employee awarded $453K

Claims she was fired after filing harassment claim

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comFebruary 23, 2013 

— A former Merced Irrigation District employee was awarded $453,000 by a jury Thursday in her retaliation lawsuit against the water and electric company.

Cindy LaCava, a customer service manager, claimed the MID fired her in February 2010 after she filed discrimination and sexual harassment complaints.

Jim Betts, a Fresno-based attorney representing LaCava, said his client filed internal complaints for sexual harassment and unequal wages in December 2008 and January 2009.

She alleges she was the lowest-paid manager and was making less than her male counterparts, Betts said. LaCava's annual salary was $67,400 at the time of her termination, he said.

When her complaints went unresolved, Betts said, LaCava contacted the Department of Fair Employment and Housing and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in September 2009.

According to the commission, LaCava requested and received an immediate right-to-sue. The agency doesn't investigate those cases.

But without obtaining a right-to-sue, a commission official said, LaCava couldn't file a complaint in state court alleging workplace discrimination, harassment or retaliation.

While those claims were pending, LaCava was terminated by the MID in a "reorganization" move for economic reasons.

However, LaCava said several senior managers received large pay raises in the months leading up to the layoffs, including a $21,000 increase for the new general manager.

Betts said LaCava was given 15 minutes to leave the building, but paid for the rest of the month.

One manager among layoffs

MID officials testified that 21 positions were eliminated in the reorganization, but Betts said most of those employees were transferred to other positions.

A total of four people lost their jobs, including LaCava, who was the only manager to be dismissed, Betts said. The other positions included a utility worker, night patrolman and weed sprayer, he said.

In her sexual harassment claim, LaCava alleges an employee spread rumors that she was having an inappropriate relationship with a senior manager, and that co-workers left pornographic pictures in her office.

A month after LaCava's termination, MID General Manager John Sweigard issued a letter to her attorney acknowledging that "inappropriate comments" were made in the workplace and that the issue was addressed.

A phone call to Sweigard and MID counsel Robert Greenfield was not returned Friday.

MID Public and Government Relations Officer Mike Jensen said the district "does not comment on any individual employee's current or past terms of employment."

Jensen offered a statement on the district's behalf:

"The district would like to thank the jury, judge and court for their time and attention to this matter. MID is pleased to have this matter behind us."

LaCava's attorney, who's been working on the case for three years, said Thursday's outcome is a "victory" and doesn't plan to seek damages for the sexual harassment or discrimination claims.

"I think it was a very successful resolution of the claim. We're extremely pleased with the jury verdict," Betts said. "Cindy is relieved and feels that her complaints were vindicated."

LaCava had been employed by the MID for 10 years, and was promoted to management in 2006.

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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