A woman who spoke up for female California Conservation Corps members who were the targets of alleged sexual transgressions won a retaliation lawsuit Tuesday from the state agency that had fired her.
Margaret Grodzik won a $159,000 award from a Sacramento Superior Court jury which also found that the CCC failed to reasonably accommodate the 66 year old woman, who suffered from diabetes and a heart condition.
“Heros come in all sizes and packages, “Grodzik’s lawyer, Jill P. Telfer, said after the verdict. “This one was a grandmother. She was tenacious. She went everywhere for help and exhausted every single avenue. Her last resort was the courtroom.”
Grodzik worked from 2004 to 2007 as a supervisor at the agency’s Tahoe Basin Center, overseeing young charges – many with troubled pasts – who work in the mountains cutting trails and fighting fires.
In a 2008 lawsuit, she charged that a few of the 65 or so young men at the center were making life miserable for some of the facility’s 10 to 15 women. She said she told the center’s managers about the women’s allegations, including one accusation of rape.
Management did nothing, Grodzik’s suit said, and even rehired one young man who had been terminated from the program for his drug use and potential for violence.
Then Grodzik took her claims to the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing and the CCC’s equal employment opportunity office. Amid the ensuing investigation, Grodzik was fired.
“The corps members and their families are relying on CCC to allow them to be working in a safe environment,” Telfer said. “When they get allegations of sexual assaults, rape and harassment, they need to investigate and discipline those involved rather than circling the wagons.”
Jurors awarded Grodzik $59,000 for past and future economic damages, plus $100,000 for pain and suffering. Judge David I Brown is expected to schedule a hearing within the next 60 days to determine Telfer’s attorney fees. They are expected to run will into another six figures.
CCC spokesman Jimmy Camp declined to comment on the verdict Tuesday.
“We’ve got to wait until we review it with the attorney general’s office,” Camp said.
In their trial brief, the state’s lawyers said Grodzik had joined a former official at the Tahoe center in a “self-serving and ill-founded campaign” against its director, Gary Ray who was named as a defendant in the suit.
The state’s court papers said Grodzik was only a part-time employee who made $11 an hour. They said Grodzik was fired for insubordination because she did not return documents to the agency that were related to a temporary restraining order she had obtained against another employee at the Tahoe Center.
“Thus, the CCC had a legitimate, non-retaliatory justification for terminating her employment,” the defense lawyers’ trial brief said.
But in their two days of deliberations, the jury sided forcefully with Grodzik, answering in her favor on every answer on the verdict forms. Included among them were questions whether her complaints motivated CCC’s conduct toward her, whether the agency took reasonable steps to prevent retaliation against her and whether it ever sought to reasonably accommodate Grodzik for her physical maladies. Grodzik said in her lawsuit that all she wanted on that score was the ability to take an intermittent medical leave.
“Margaret was a very courteous woman, a sweet person.” Telfer said. “The corps members loved her – they called her ‘grandma’. She listened to them and she also cared about them. Her job was to look out for the health and safety of the corps members. She took that responsibility very seriously.”