Jury awards former Calif. county CO $9.9M in sexual harassment suit

Maria Olga Tahara says she was physically and verbally harassed by her officer in charge; the jury agreed

By David Wilson
YUBA CITY, Calif. — A Sutter County jury awarded a former Sutter County Sheriff's Office correctional officer nearly $10 million on Friday for wrongful termination of employment involving sexual harassment and disability discrimination claims, according to the plaintiff's lawyer James Clark.

Maria Olga Tahara worked as a correctional officer for Sutter County from 2008 until 2017. Her duties included daily management of the Sutter county Jail, inmate processing, inmate transportation (including to Yuba County Superior Court), along with other tasks.

"Over the last three years of her employment with defendants, plaintiff Tahara was sexually harassed, daily by physical and verbal harassment by her Officer in Charge Benjamin Barajas," court documents read.

The conduct allegedly included unwanted touching of Tahara's buttocks, touching and drubbing of her inner groin areas and legs, fondling Tahara's arms and shoulders, and cornering her into rooms with threats of sexual assault while blocking the exit, and verbal sexual innuendos, such as "I have dreams of having sex with you." In addition, Barajas would hold Tahara against the countertop and thrust his pelvis into her backside not permitting Tahara to escape, according to court documents.

After a six-day jury trial and eight hours of deliberation, the jury awarded Tahara $9,976,488. The total was broken down into the following categories: past economic loss ($371,015), future economic loss ($799,973), future pension less ($1,305,500), past non-economic loss ($3 million), and future non-economic loss ($4.5 million), according to Clark.

Witnesses in the trial included Tahara, Sutter County Sheriff's Office Lt. Kristie Garza, former Sutter County Sheriff J. Paul Parker, Barajas, and current CAO Steve Smith, according to court documents. Clark said he called three expert witnesses and the defense called two.

"I am very very pleased with the jury's decisions," Tahara said in a statement. "I want to thank the jurors for their time, and thank the judge and courtroom staff for their professionalism. I simply cannot thank the jurors enough."

As a result of the ongoing sexual harassment and hostile work environment, Tahara developed mental and physical disabilities that included exhaustion, anxiety and depression. Tahara reported the harassment to her sergeant and the county administrator's office, according to Clark's trial brief.

Court documents named Norman Bidwell and Garza as the superiors at the sheriff's office that Tahara reported the harassment to. According to Clark, the only response Tahara received was: "Yes, he is a dog."

In October 2017, Tahara was treated by a medical provider and after an evaluation by the county's own medical provider, Tahara was placed on a four week leave of absence. At a follow-up appointment in November 2017, Tahara was ordered off work until Jan. 3, 2018. On Dec. 6, 2017, the sheriff's office terminated Tahara in a letter and cited she resigned, according to Clark's trial brief. According to the defendant's trial brief, Tahara filed a worker's compensation claim that was denied. She then used up all her vacation time and sick time and had to return to work. When she did not return, the sheriff's office considered her position abandoned and terminated her.
The lawsuit was originally filed in Yuba County but Yuba County Superior Court Judge Stephen Berrier granted a change of venue motion which transferred proceedings to Sutter County in March 2019.
Sutter County public information officer Chuck Smith said Monday that Barajas is currently employed with the county. The county did not respond to a question about whether Tahara's report to the CAO's office was acted upon.
"A Sutter County jury awarded Ms. Tahara approximately $10 million, millions of dollars above what was demanded by Ms. Tahara's attorney," the county said in a statement Monday. "It is our sincere belief that the verdict will not withstand legal appellate review."

(c)2021 the Appeal-Democrat (Marysville, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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