Just over a year after the #MeToo movement first rocked the California Capitol with widespread allegations of sexual harassment in the state house, legislative leaders responded by launching the Workplace Conduct Unit, a independent group to investigate complaints of inappropriate behavior in the Legislative Assembly.
The unit is now at the center of a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit a former employee filed last year against the state Senate, its former boss, Sen. Bob Archuleta (D-Pico Rivera), his chief of staff and the Senate Rules Committee.
The former staffer, identified as “Jane Doe” in the lawsuit, resigned from the Senate in September 2020. After months of litigation, the upper house recently offered Doe her position and offered a settlement agreement.
On Friday, Doe’s attorney, William Reed, sent a response letter to Senate attorneys listing a series of proposed changes to the unit as conditions for considering Doe’s reinstatement.
The nine-page letter calls for the removal of some HR staff and for steps to be taken to increase transparency and independence within the unit.
In a statement, Senate Secretary Erika Contreras said the Senate offered Doe a job with protections “in good faith.”
“We offered Mr. Reed’s client a safe path to the job she loved, and instead he responded with a set of extreme ‘poison pill’ demands designed to make his client appear is interested in returning to work when in fact he or she doesn’t want that to happen,” Contreras said.
The lawsuit, filed in March 2021 in Los Angeles County Superior Court, alleged that while Doe was working as Archuleta’s district manager in 2019, he made inappropriate and unwelcome comments to Doe and initiated “unwanted romantic proposals.” desired”. The lawsuit claimed that after Doe “refused her advances”, Archuleta publicly embarrassed and retaliated against her, and that her role was “significantly downplayed”.
Archuleta did not respond to a request for comment, but he previously denied the allegations.
The complaint also alleged that Doe’s concerns were not taken into account by mandated reporters, leaving him with “no choice” but to step down in September 2020 after more than a decade of work for the Legislative Assembly. . The Workplace Conduct Unit was added as a defendant in the lawsuit in July 2021. The complaint alleged that the unit “failed to conduct a timely” investigation into its allegations.
The Senate offered an “unconditional offer of re-employment” to Doe in a June 16 letter that promised she would be rehired in a similar role working for another senator with the same pay and benefits.
In a separate legal document, the Senate offered Doe $250,000 to settle the lawsuit without forcing the defendants to admit liability. The offer to reinstate Doe to his former position is not conditional on accepting the settlement offer, the Senate lawyers wrote.
Reed wrote that Doe would only consider returning to her job if the Workplace Conduct Unit’s investigative process was improved and if she received a public apology from the Senate and Archuleta. Doe did not respond to the offer to settle the lawsuit.
Doe also called on Contreras and Julia Johnson, the former executive director of the Workplace Conduct Unit, to “resign.” Johnson announced earlier this year that she had resigned and was taking a position with another state agency.
State Senate attorneys argued in court records that Doe “repeatedly attempted to prevent an investigation” and that the COVID-19 pandemic also prevented a formal investigation into the alleged misconduct.
“At the end of the day, [Doe] refused to cooperate with the Workplace Conduct Unit’s investigation and thereby prevented an effective investigation from taking place,” one of the documents filed with the court read. “The Workplace Conduct Unit attempted to initiate an investigation; however, this investigation was hampered by the plaintiff’s refusal to cooperate. »
Doe’s attorney denied those allegations.
The concerns raised in the lawsuit echo other criticism the workplace conduct unit has faced in recent months. A coalition of former staffers and women’s advocacy groups called on the Legislative Assembly in June to hold a public hearing into the panel’s successes and failures and agree to any changes they deemed necessary to hold the perpetrators allegedly responsible.
The coalition sees an overhaul of the workplace conduct unit as a way to deliver on the promises made during the #MeToo movement, which began in October 2017 when more than 140 women – including women lawmakers, members of the staff and lobbyists – wrote a letter describing an endemic culture of tolerance. of inappropriate behavior on Capitol Hill and calling for policy changes.
Less than a year after the letter was published, three lawmakers publicly accused of misconduct had resigned and a fourth had quit the legislature, citing ill health, while he was under another investigation. .
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Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) and Senate Pro Tem Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) recently said they would have discussions with the Legislative Women’s Caucus to determine what improvements are needed to the unity of conduct in the workplace.
They said they would implement the recommendations by the end of the legislative session in August. The unit resolved 95% of the 349 complaints it received between February 2019 and 2022, legislative leaders said.
Micha Star Liberty, a California attorney who has represented current and former employees in the Legislative Assembly, said the Workplace Conduct Unit’s current complaint review process deserves careful scrutiny, especially regarding investigation delays and transparency.
“I hope the legislature will engage in good faith negotiation, not just with [Doe]but on a large scale where every worker has access to a fast, independent and productive process to resolve employment issues,” Liberty said.
Reed said the negotiations are an effort to “effect change” and “ensure that if Jane Doe was considering returning, she would return to a safe working environment.”
Los Angeles Times