Merced Court CEO ‘harassed and retaliated’ against employees, staffers tell judge

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Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, explains the need for Assembly Bill 1870, giving workers up to three years to file a sexual harassment claim with the state.

Merced County Superior Court employees blasted a retired court CEO on Tuesday before she was hired for a temporary consulting position for the Merced County Superior Courthouse.

Judge Donald J. Proietti approved a contract to bring Linda Romero-Soles, who recently retired, back to the courthouse to mentor interim CEO Amanda Toste. The decision was made in open court on Tuesday.

Romero-Soles will work no more than 25 hours a week for no more than six months at $92.75 an hour, which was the rate at which she retired. She made more than $295,000 in total pay and benefits in 2017, according to the most recent numbers available from watchdog Transparent California.

“What I’m doing isn’t new,” Romero-Soles said, noting other courts who have hired advisers. “I don’t want to be there a long time because I don’t think I need to.”

“The goal is to try to get a lot of these managers trained and they can assume the position,” she continued.

Before the final decision from the judge, courthouse employee Brenda Reyna read a statement on “behalf of my colleagues who are unable to attend today due to either fear of retaliation and/or lack of notice.”

“During retired CEO Linda Romero-Soles’ tenure at Merced Superior Court she has repeatedly harassed and retaliated against employees,” she said. “With the assistance and participation of Human Resources, Linda Romero-Soles has reduced employee morale and created a less than desirable working environment.”

Romero-soles said she could not discuss the claims of harassment, noting an ongoing legal case that may be involved.

A 40-year-old female deputy court clerk who is suing the courthouse said an investigation in 2018 by the Judicial Council of California confirmed a supervisor, identified in a legal 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.

The employee statement also pointed to the timing of the announcement for the public hearing on Tuesday. It was posted on Saturday with a deadline to submit written comments by 1 p.m. Monday, four hours after the workday begins.

“Today’s meeting was set for one of the busiest court days, during jury trial call, so as to prevent employees from attending,” the statement said.

The employees also expressed concern over the experience of the interim CEO, saying they believed Romero-Soles appointed her to secure herself the consulting position. Deputy CEO Jane Van Vloten would have been a wiser pick, the statement argues.

Proietti pushed back on claims made by the employees in court on Tuesday, saying he had sole decision-making power over appointing Toste, who he argued had better human resources experience.

“My decision was not made because Linda recommended it,” he said. “My decision was not made because it would give Linda a back door (to the consultant job).”

Romero-Soles began working in Merced County in April 2011 after more than 31 years working in courthouses in the state. She worked in Los Angeles and Stanislaus counties before spending eight years in Merced. She said she earned the 2016 Institute for Court Management Fellow Star Award.

Officially retired as of Friday, she oversaw 147 employees. “They were a wonderful group of staff. I have nothing bad to say about them,” she said. “You’re going to have a few that don’t like leadership and I can’t do anything about that. I feel bad that there was negative comments, but they’re all wonderful staff.”

Proietti said Romero-Soles would not make decisions about personnel or discipline, but serve as an adviser for the interim department head and could be terminated at will.

Romero-Soles does not live in Merced and would likely provide advice remotely, he said. “I asked her to be available as we need her,” he said.