Stanislaus County wants a former Sheriff's Department clerk who lost a sexual harassment lawsuit to foot the county's bill for the five-week trial.
The county is asking for nearly $783,000 from Lydia Lopez, a Ceres woman who failed to convince jurors in March that she was sexually harassed by a superior and that managers retaliated against her after she reported advances.
Officials want to recoup the money spent defending the county against her accusations, including attorney fees, court costs and hourly fees for expert witnesses. Attorney fees add up to $674,155, and experts paid to testify at the trial cost the county $108,680, said Edward R. Burroughs, assistant county counsel.
Burroughs said it's common for the county to try to recover costs after prevailing against a "meritless" lawsuit. During his re-election bid, Sheriff Adam Christianson said the county's costs must be covered by Lopez.
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"The lawsuit filed by Ms. Lopez was frivolous," Burroughs said. "This is the taxpayers' money. We think it's only right that we ... try to recover the costs of defending the lawsuit."
While he said the county does not want to discourage those who have been legitimately harassed to step forward, Burroughs said the Fair Employment and Housing Act was not meant to be "a tool for disgruntled employees to get back at their employer."
Lopez's attorney, Jeffery Hubins, said Lopez likely would be forced into bankruptcy if the court awards the full amount sought by the county.
Lopez was unemployed during the trial, held two low-paying jobs and told jurors she was forced into homelessness after leaving the Sheriff's Department.
"It's baffling to me," Hubins said. "(That amount) certainly isn't warranted in this instance."
The department has drawn legal challenges from 10 current and former female employees.
The department settled one case in October for $545,000 with three women who alleged that they were punished for raising claims of workplace discrimination.
Lopez sought $490,000 in her civil lawsuit, claiming retaliation forced her to quit the department after she rejected sexual advances from then-drug agent Bill Pooley, who was cleared in an internal investigation and subsequently promoted to police chief in Riverbank.
Defense attorneys painted Lopez as a rebellious employee soiling the reputation of a good man while seeking a substantial tax-funded payout.
Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Hurl Johnson will preside over a hearing July 20 on the county's claim for reimbursement of its legal costs in the Lopez case.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.