Merced Superior Court, employee reach settlement in sexual harassment lawsuit

A Merced Superior Court employee who claimed administrators mishandled her sexual harassment complaint has settled her lawsuit with the court.

The employee, a 41-year-old female deputy clerk, claimed in a lawsuit filed last year that court administrators failed to protect her and retaliated against her after an investigation determined a court supervisor made sexual comments and requested a picture of her breasts. The supervisor was identified in court documents as Leonardo Torres-Pena.

As a result of the Aug. 14 settlement, the employee received $160,000 and was expected to pay her own attorney’s fees. She also was placed on paid administrative leave effective Aug. 15, and will continue receiving paychecks as a “court processing clerk II” until Aug. 15, 2020, when she will officially resign.

The clerk was first hired by the Merced Superior Court on April 26, 2007, Interim Court Executive Officer Amanda Toste confirmed.

Neither the Merced Superior Court nor Torres-Pena admitted guilt, according to the agreement, which was reached “In order to avoid the substantial expense and inconvenience of further litigation.”

Torres-Pena also continues to be employed with the Merced Superior Court as a “supervising court clerk,” Toste said. He was hired on Feb. 8, 2010.

“(The clerk’s) allegations have been and are still denied,” said Carolee Kilduff, a Sacramento-based attorney representing the Merced Superior Court and Torres-Pena.

“That being said the litigation required the Court to incur ongoing attorney’s fees, was disruptive to the Court, and upsetting to the Court’s employees including (the clerk) and Mr. Torres-Pena,” Kilduff’s emailed statement reads.

The clerk’s attorney, San Francisco-based Sonya Smallets, didn’t return several messages requesting comment.

In her lawsuit, the clerk claimed that the supervisor made even more sexually explicit statements, including offers of sex. But she said the investigation, which found insufficient evidence of those claims, was “incomplete.”

Also, the clerk claimed she was constantly assigned to work with Torres-Pena after she needed to take medical leave due to anxiety and depression resulting from the harassment.

Court administrators also wrote the clerk up on a disciplinary matter she claimed was unfounded, something she viewed as retaliation, the complaint states.

A civil court hearing was scheduled for December, but the settlement agreement was reached last month, according to court records.

The case was dismissed with prejudice, court records state, meaning the clerk can’t bring the same case back to the courtroom again.

Vikaas Shanker is an award-winning reporter covering education, crime and courts for the Merced Sun-Star and Los Banos Enterprise. After growing up in Naperville, Illinois and graduating from the University of Kansas, he reported in several Chicago suburbs before moving to Merced County in 2016.