Call Center Case Costs City

 A federal judge says the jury verdict in favor of a 911 call center employee who won $1,200 in damages last fall has "put the city on notice" that it must better educate its employees about sexual harassment in the workplace.

 "The city is now on notice that this type of hostile work environment is not to be tolerated," Senior U.S. District Judge C. LeRoy Hansen said in an opinion this week that also hits the city where it hurts — the pocketbook.     

 Over city objections about the hourly rate and the number of hours, Hansen ordered the city to pay over $101,000 in legal fees to attorneys Robert Gorence and Louren Oliveros and two paralegals in their law office for successfully taking the case to trial.    

The fee award is available by law for the prevailing party in federal civil rights cases, but must be reviewed by the judge.   

Hansen's ruling came in the lawsuit filed by Michelle Lopez, one of three women who claimed harassment by the then-911 call center supervisor, Michael Padilla. Lopez, who has worked at the call center since 1994, sued in 2008, claiming employment discrimination, retaliation and civil rights violations. Hansen dismissed five of her claims, and the case went to trial last fall on her claims of hostile work environment.  

The jury's $1,200 award correlated with her testimony about out-of-pocket expenses for psychological therapy.

Hansen said the fact that he had dismissed many of the original claims against all but one defendant — the city — "does not diminish the importance of her prevailing at trial."

Lopez said she sued "not only to vindicate herself, but to stand up against the hostile environment that she and her female co-workers endured at the defendant's 911 Emergency Call Center under Michael Padilla," the opinion says.    

Padilla has called the allegations false and ridiculous. He resigned in 2007, saying he had been "railroaded." 

Hansen noted that another case involving similar complaints from two other female 911 call center employees was settled last year by the city.   

The city agreed last June to a $149,000 settlement after allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation by Marlyn Webb and Pauline Sanchez.       

Then-City Attorney Rob Perry, now chief administrative officer, said after the verdict that the case was rooted in allegations that predate the election of Mayor Richard Berry and amounted to "more cleanup work from the prior administration."

Hansen noted that the two lawsuits "consumed years of resources, with the city vigorously opposing each phase in the litigation.

"Certainly the outcomes of both cases should have significant impact on management at the city of Albuquerque and should result in better compliance with Title VII by city employees in their supervisory roles in the future," the court said in the opinion.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

By Scott Sandlin
Journal Staff Writer