A federal jury has awarded a woman $827,500 in damages after finding that her previous employer failed to protect her from sexual assault by a state Department of General Services manager while she worked as a security guard at department parking facilities in Sacramento.
The civil rights award to Sharon Paterson was against Inter-Con Security Systems Inc., a private firm that contracts with the General Services Department for guards at state facilities in Sacramento. She worked for Inter-Con in 2002 and 2003. The Pasadena company didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The jury of five women and three men deliberated four days after a six-day trial and returned a verdict late Monday. On Tuesday, the panel decided it wants to award punitive damages against Inter-Con, because its actions were taken with “malice” and “oppression.” The jury is scheduled to return April 10 to determine punitive damages
As he left the courtroom Tuesday, Inter-Con attorney Matthew Ruggles said, “We disagree” with the jury’s findings.
Earlier, Ruggles argued against punitive damages and told the jury: “I want to assure you we heard the message (of the Monday verdict), and I made sure the message went all the way to the top. We will take action so that it won’t happen again.”
Paterson claims Raymond E. Asbell, a General Services employee who managed the Inter-Con contract and was her supervisor, threatened to get her fired as a means of forcing her into repeated oral sex on the job and intercourse at her residence. The latter is described in court papers as rape because of Asbell’s alleged threats to get her fired.
She claimed that after Asbell raped her, he and Inter-Con conspired to terminate her on pretexts of misconduct and insubordination.
In court papers, Paterson is described as “a mess” in the days immediately after the alleged rape. It was then, the papers say, that she had a confrontation with the DGS service garage manager, and that incident and Asbell’s recommendation were used by Inter-Con to justify firing her.
Paterson also sued the Department of General Services and Asbell, but they settled before trial. DGS paid her $250,000 and Asbell paid her $50,000, bringing the total awarded or already collected to $1,127,500. On top of that, her attorney, Lawrence King, will be entitled to at least part of his fee from Inter-Con.
Asbell, 39, testified as a defense witness that he had consensual sex with Paterson while he was her supervisor.
He invoked the Fifth Amendment, his constitutional right against self-incrimination, when asked on cross-examination whether he had forced her into oral sex and raped her.
According to court papers, a General Services inquiry in 2003 resulted in findings that Asbell was guilty of sexual harassment. The department notified Paterson that it was recommending Asbell’s termination.
“Despite its official report, its responses to the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, and its assurances to Ms. Paterson, DGS took no disciplinary action against Asbell, and he was allowed to accept a promotion to another state agency,” King wrote in court papers.
Spokeswoman Beth Mills said General Services “did find sexual harassment and did settle with Ms. Paterson.”
“Anything related to Asbell, we can’t comment on,” Mills said. She referred inquiries to his attorney, Daniel G. O’Donnell, who wasn’t available Tuesday.
Asbell, who lives in Rancho Cordova, is a program analyst at the Department of Personnel Administration. He started there in January 2005, and makes $63,996 a year. He did not return calls seeking comment.
DPA spokeswoman Lynelle Jolley said, “We are in the process of sorting out the facts of this case, and haven’t yet reached any conclusions.”
Paterson, 46, was not in court for the verdicts. Reached by telephone in Huntington Beach, where she now lives, Paterson said she is attempting to get a business off the ground. She said her goal was to become an investigator for a state agency, but that has not been possible with the Inter-Con dismissal on her employment record.
“The most important thing is the jury believed me and understood what I went through,” she said. “That’s the only thing I ever wanted. … I’ve been called a liar so many times. Thank goodness for the jury system.”
Paterson was hired by Inter-Con in August 2002 and worked at a downtown state building on Ninth Street. There, she says, she encountered unwanted sexual advances and suggestive remarks from a DGS employee.
When she complained to Inter-Con, it took her off that post, offered her shifts it knew conflicted with classes she was attending, and subjected her to a campaign of hostility that finally forced her to take medical leave, court papers say.
Paterson returned to work in the summer of 2003 and was assigned to DGS parking facilities, with Asbell as her supervisor. Inter-Con continued to be a hostile environment, and Asbell defended her against the company’s harassment, but then told her she “owed” him and began the threats, court papers say.
She did not report Asbell’s demands because “Inter-Con was still retaliating against her for the first sexual harassment complaint she filed,” King wrote in court papers. “She reasonably believed Inter-Con would fire her if she complained.”
Because of this, the jury found that Inter-Con failed to provide Paterson “a reasonable avenue to complain about Raymond Asbell’s conduct.”
The jury also found the complaint about the first employee was “a motivating factor for (Paterson’s) termination.”
It was not until she had been fired by Inter-Con that DGS learned of her claims about Asbell and investigated.
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