Taxpayers have covered $2.1 million in legal costs to defend the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department from three recent lawsuits brought by female employees.
And that's the price for winning -- or at least not losing.
A $545,000 settlement in October canceled a trial date for a bias lawsuit brought by Jackie Bernal, Charmaine Morad-Daniel and Marlena Younan. The county paid an additional $751,700 to outside legal specialists for that case, bringing the total cost to nearly $1.3 million.
Early this month, the county successfully defended former clerk Lydia Lopez's sexual harassment and retaliation claims, paying an outside law firm $820,342 for work up to the Feb. 1 start of the trial. County officials expect later to receive an extra bill for the five week trial, including salaries for two attorneys and a paralegal.
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Lopez had offered to settle for $200,000 soon after filing her lawsuit in December 2007 and her attorney asked jurors for a $490,000 payment at the end of the trial. The county's attorney succeeded in preventing Lopez from getting a dime and the Sheriff's Department won at least a partial public relations victory, but both came at a price to taxpayers.
Decisions on settling lawsuits early or going to trial rest with the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors, which discusses strategy behind closed doors. The county doesn't want to be seen as an easy mark for cash payouts.
"There are claims that are worth fighting for regardless of the cost," County Counsel John Doering said. "(Others) have a certain nuisance value to them and would cost more to go through a whole legal process than just to settle. That's a business decision."
Doering said the county's "extra insurance" carrier pays for costs and awards beyond a $250,000 deductible.
In another lawsuit, former sheriff's employee Valine Sarmas accuses Sgt. Pedro Bel- tran of kissing and groping her and showing her a cell phone video of him having sex with another department employee. A trial in federal court has been scheduled for May 2011; so far, the county has paid $5,640 to the same firm that won the Lopez trial.
Recent nongender cases against the Sheriff's Department have cost taxpayers nearly a half-million dollars.
A federal jury in the fall awarded $215,000 to survivors of Ramiro Garcia, 39, who died two days after scuffling with deputies in Patterson, and the outside attorney who lost that case charged more than $39,000.
And county leaders this month paid $160,000 to three Patterson residents, including Wayne Smith and his mother, Tammy Smith, to settle their lawsuit against the Sheriff's Department stemming from another dust-up with deputies, plus $43,000 in legal costs.
The county has spent $972 on a claim filed by the family of Craig Prescott, who died two days after struggling with jail guards who used Tasers and a pepperball gun and were cleared in an investigation.
And taxpayers have covered more than $21,000 in legal bills defending a lawsuit brought by James Wells' survivors, who say deputies mistook an epileptic seizure for a drug induced stupor and shot him with Tasers.