STOCKTON – San Joaquin County has filed motions for a federal judge to overturn a jury’s award of more than $2 million to a former supervising investigator with the prosecutor’s office.
A civil jury in April found the county liable on grounds District Attorney James Willett retaliated against former employee Janis Trulsson after she complained that a colleague was facing discrimination.
Sacramento attorney Jill Telfer, who is representing Trulsson, said her client had complained that a supervising district attorney, Mary Aguirre, was demoted for the second time in a short period and she wasn’t being treated fairly.
Male managers in meetings often spoke about Aguirre in derogatory terms, Telfer said. Additionally, there were no women in top management positions and few were supervisors.
Trulsson said as a result of her complaints she was laid off, and a month later, a male was promoted to the position she was being groomed for before her termination.
Willett denies wrongdoing in court papers, saying Trulsson’s employment was terminated when funding for her department was cut.
In recent motions filed, the county cites various arguments to have the jury’s decision tossed.
One is that Trulsson’s supervisor, Larry Ferrari, had not made Willett aware of her complaints.
“To the contrary, both plaintiff and Larry Ferrari testified that they had not told D.A. Willett about plaintiff’s concerns about Ms. Aguirre and D.A. Willett testified that he was not aware of the complaint,” according to court papers filed by the county’s attorneys Velma K. Lim and Jamie M. Bossuat of Kroloff, Belcher, Smart, Perry & Christopherson in Stockton.
Telfer has not completed her response to the motions yet but said in a phone interview that aside from their testimonies, the two have admitted in depositions that Ferrari had relayed Trulsson’s concerns to Willett.
Telfer confronted the two with their depositions during cross examination, she said.
The county also is arguing that Trulsson was not an employee, nor did she prove she was an applicant at the time the new chief of investigations was appointed and, therefore, is not covered under the law.
But Telfer said Trulsson didn’t apply because there was no application process she said. Willett makes appointments at his discretion without opening positions to an application process.
According to her lawsuit, Trulsson was in line to be chief of investigations – historically those who held her position were groomed to replace the chief – when officials sent a male to train for it and laid her off the following month.
Telfer alleges Willett attempted to circumvent employment laws in removing Trulsson for complaining by finding an excuse to lay her off so she wouldn’t be protected and a male candidate could be appointed.
“The (U.S.) Supreme Court has already decided that former employees are protected,” Telfer said. “I am confident (the county) won’t prevail. Reason being is the jury really had substantial evidence that James Willett retaliated.”
County Counsel Kristen Hegge would not comment on the details of the case because it still is in litigation. She did, however, say, “We are hopeful that the judge sees the wisdom in our motion to reverse the judgment.”
Jurors did not find that evidence pointed to discrimination, but they did side with Trulsson’s claim she was the target of retaliation.
If the case stands, the county would pay $1 million from its own self-funded insurance account. Each county department contributes to the fund for litigation costs, Hegge said.
The District Attorney’s Office itself is largely financed by the general fund and some grants for specific purposes. The remaining amount of the award would be paid by outside insurance.
The case is scheduled for oral arguments on the motions Aug. 8 in Sacramento.