Attorneys on both sides of a hard-fought sexual harassment trial involving Stanislaus County sheriff's employees challenged jurors Wednesday to divine who is lying.
"Was Lydia Lopez sexually harassed by Bill Pooley?" said attorney Jeffery Hubins, summarizing nearly five weeks of testimony for the six-woman, six-man jury. "You've heard her story. You've heard his story. This really boils down to a question of credibility."
Lengthy closing arguments and jury instructions took all day, so jurors this morning will begin deliberating Lopez's claims.
She deserves $490,000 for being victimized by managers who would stop at nothing to crush a depressed single mother who dared blow the whistle on one of their own, Hubins argued. Managers on every level, up to Sheriff Adam Christianson himself, fell on Lopez like a truckload of police batons until she threw up her hands and quit, the plaintiff's theory goes.
The Sheriff's Department has faced recent legal challenges brought by 10 female employees or former employees, and Christianson is seeking re-election on the June ballot. He promoted Pooley to chief of police in Riverbank, a city that contracts with the county for law enforcement.
Attorney Morin Jacob, representing Pooley and the county, repeatedly accused Lopez of being "deliberately untruthful" and told jurors they should "not award her a single penny."
"Given her deliberate dishonesty and the overwhelming evidence, you should not believe anything Ms. Lopez has said during this trial," Jacob said.
From the county's view, Lopez rebelled when assigned to a graveyard shift and found a doctor willing to write notes ordering daylight work to accommodate a disability she didn't have.
When that didn't last, Lopez concocted a lurid story of racy come-ons from an innocent and baffled superior despite having taken her children to his backyard barbecue after an alleged groping, the county says.
And Lopez bolstered her phony claims by enlisting the help of a supervisor at the Sheriff's Department who had an ax of her own to grind, Jacob suggested.
Jackie Bernal, one of three female employees who settled for $545,000 just before a fall discrimination trial date against the same department, was disciplined for covering for Lopez's absences, a witness testified. Bernal and Lopez "went shopping for attorneys together," said Jacob, who claimed Bernal lied while testifying for Lopez.
The county can't be held liable for failing to accommodate Lopez's depression because she never disclosed it, Jacob said.
And Lopez's camp failed to call to the stand any of three alleged eyewitnesses to Pooley's various aggressions, Jacob noted. Among them was a janitor named by Lopez as having interrupted a Christmas Eve 2004 advance in an otherwise empty drug unit; Lopez's attorney didn't subpoena him, so Jacob did and the custodian said he didn't even work that day.
Judge Hurl Johnson on Wednesday told jurors to disregard testimony about that story, except for purposes of credibility, erasing the most provocative of Lopez's claims. Jurors must decide whether they believe other accounts of Pooley leering and making lewd comments.
"There is no evidence beyond Ms. Lopez's self-serving testimony that any of the incidents ever happened," Jacob said.
Hubins scoffed at the county's version, calling the approach, "Let's throw it all against the wall and see if anything sticks." At one point in his rebuttal, Hubins apologized for becoming animated over Jacob's suggestion that Lopez lied to obtain a series of doctors' notes excusing her from nighttime work.
"It fires me up to hear them say she was lying," Hubins told jurors. She obtained the notes because the county ordered her to, he said.
His client had a solid work record up to the point when she accused Pooley, Hubins noted. When she admitted to a minor mathematical error on a time card, management responded by involving at least 12 officers in a witch hunt, sending investigators to surveil her home, record her conversations and determine who had fathered her children, Hubins said.
Various witnesses came up with six different reasons for transferring Lopez from Pooley's unit after she allegedly rejected him, Hubins said. The sheriff eventually demoted her and testified that he believed Pooley without having reviewed an investigation into Lopez's claims.
"(Christianson) made public statements that she was lying. How in the world could he know that?" Hubins said. "He said, 'I support my managers.' And you wonder why she didn't report it earlier."
Lopez testified she was scared, needed her job and thought no one would believe her.
Christianson transferred Lopez to work under Pooley's father-in-law, who also sat on a disciplinary panel recommending she be fired, Hubins noted. And managers never picked up the phone to ask her doctor about a disability they did not want to acknowledge, Hubins said.
A financial award is the only means the law allows of compensating his client for the department's wrongs, Hubins told jurors.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2390.