Female court clerk files sexual harassment lawsuit against Merced Court supervisor

People enter and exit the Merced County Superior Courthouse located at 2260 N Street in Merced, Calif., on Wednesday, July 25, 2018.
People enter and exit the Merced County Superior Courthouse located at 2260 N Street in Merced, Calif., on Wednesday, July 25, 2018. akuhn@mercedsun-star.com

A Merced County Superior Court employee is suing the court and the supervisor she says sexually harassed her and claims senior officials punished her for making the claim and protected the alleged offender.

The employee, a 40-year-old female deputy clerk, said an investigation earlier this year by the Judicial Council of California confirmed the supervisor, identified in the complaint as Leonardo Torres-Pena, “made sexual comments to (the clerk) regarding her breasts and requested pictures of her breasts during the period of October 2015 to March 2017,” the lawsuit states.

But, the employee also claims the investigation was incomplete. The investigator found “insufficient evidence“ Torres-Pena made the more sexually explicit statements and offers of sex that are alleged in her lawsuit.

“A more thorough investigation would have uncovered additional evidence to support (the clerk’s) claim, as Torres-Pena sexually harassed several women in addition to (the clerk),” the complaint states.

The clerk, who spoke with the Merced Sun-Star on Friday, said the ordeal humiliated her and her family. The employee has been identified in public court records, but the Sun-Star does not name alleged victims of sexual harassment.

“I lost every friend at work,” she said. “I’m taking medication for depression. I have anxiety. I don’t go anywhere. I don’t want to run into anyone from work. I’m living in fear.”

She’s been placed on medical leave by a doctor, she said.

The clerk said she exhausted all available administrative avenues before filing the lawsuit.

Torres-Pena did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Merced Superior Court CEO Linda Romero-Soles said she couldn’t comment on the allegations in the complaint.

He is accused in the complaint of ordering the subordinate employee to send him photographs of her genitals and breasts and of asking if he could have sex with her “before he got married.” He also is accused of asking if he could touch her breasts, according to the complaint.

The alleged victim said such comments were made to her at least weekly while they worked together.

Torres-Pena required the clerk, and not other employees, to come into his office and say “good morning” to him, along with frequently requiring the clerk to come to his office at the end of the day, according to the complaint.

When both were alone, Torres-Pena reportedly told the clerk “you look so fine” and made other similar comments, the complaint states.

The clerk reportedly objected to Torres-Pena’s advances and tried to minimize contact with him, the complaint states.

In March 2017, the clerk took several days off work for a minor medical procedure. But she was told she would work directly with Torres-Pena when she came back, the complaint states.

The news “caused (the clerk) to experience significant fear and emotional distress,” leading her doctor to diagnose her with anxiety and depression resulting in an extended medical leave, according to the complaint.

When she returned to work in October 2017, she was again assigned to work with Torres-Pena, according to the complaint.

That’s when she reported the sexual harassment to the court’s human resources department, triggering an investigation by the Judicial Council of California.

The complaint states the court administration failed to prevent Torres-Pena from harassing the clerk during the investigation. She said she was directed to protect herself by staying in her office area, to avoid co-workers at holiday parties because Torres-Pena may be present and was directed to use the public courthouse entrance while Torres-Pena was allowed to continue using the employee entrance.

The clerk also suffered harassment from co-workers who learned of the allegations and accused her of ruing Torres-Pena’s life, according to the complaint.

After the investigation, Torres-Pena was transferred from the Merced courthouse to the Robert M. Falasco Justice Center in Los Banos, a move Torres-Pena reportedly described as a “promotion,” according to the complaint.

The transfer also made him the most senior administrative employee in the courthouse, meaning the court administration couldn’t effectively supervise his conduct, the complaint states.

The clerk said she court officials retaliated against her, writing her up on a disciplinary matter she said was unfounded.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages from the defendants, including financial compensation for attorney’s fees and for suffering and emotional distress.

Sonya Smallets, a San Francisco-based attorney representing the clerk, told the Sun-Star she believes other women have been sexually harassed “as a result of an investigation I’ve conducted.”

Smallets said her client was trying to balance her abuse in the workplace with her employment.

“As a victim, she was valued less than the harasser,” Smallets said. “Ultimately, (the court) is liable for the harassment that supervisors commit.”

A case management conference for the lawsuit has been scheduled for Dec. 24, according to court records.