Ex-DA workers sue over alleged harassment

Filing describes sexual misconduct, retaliation

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comAugust 19, 2013 

— Two former employees of the Merced County district attorney's office have filed a civil lawsuit against the office, the county and a current employee, claiming sexual harassment and retaliation.

Diane Goins, 41, a former investigative assistant, and Wesley Rentfrow, 35, a former criminal investigator, claim their supervisor — supervising investigator Merle Wayne Hutton — subjected them to harassment, unwarranted discipline and termination as retaliation.

Hutton said Thursday that the claims outlined in the lawsuit are false, and are similar to the complaints made by the plaintiffs in 2009.

In that internal investigation, an arbitrator dismissed the allegations against Hutton.

"The allegations they are putting forward are completely false," he said of the claims made in the lawsuit. "I addressed these complaints in 2009 and was exonerated of all allegations of sexual harassment. I understood the county investigating the claims but (I) beat it because I didn't do it."

According to the civil lawsuit, Goins claims Hutton made "unwanted and unsolicited sexually-oriented comments, touching and requests," and that he sent offensive emails.

She claims Hutton interrogated her about her romantic relationships, made comments about her body and clothing, and repeatedly told her he loved her.

According to the lawsuit, Hutton, 52, asked Rentfrow, who was dating Goins at the time, to give him nude photographs of her.

After Rentfrow refused and reported Hutton to District Attorney Larry Morse II, he claimed he received poor performance reviews, unwarranted discipline and additional job duties from Hutton.

Rentfrow claims Hutton further retaliated against him after he testified at a disciplinary proceeding regarding Hutton's behavior toward Goins and another female employee.

The lawsuit maintains Hutton wrote a letter calling Rentfrow "mentally unstable" and "incompetent" because he'd had brain surgery.

After Goins took a medical leave in January 2010, she said Hutton threatened her with termination and called her and Rentfrow "occupational terrorists" for filing charges with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Goins and Rentfrow complained about Hutton's conduct to Morse and two other supervisors, but "no action was taken," according to the lawsuit.

Goins was terminated on July 31, 2011, and Rentfrow on April 22, 2012; both were told they were laid off because of a "reduction in force," but claim they were fired for filing complaints against Hutton.

After the arbitrator heard the testimony of Rentfrow in the 2009 case, Hutton said he was exonerated of all the allegations.

"The Appellant certainly did not sexually harass Mr. Rentfrow … there was no proof that the Appellant actually said anything about sharing nude photos," according to the decision by the arbitrator.

"On cross-examination, Mr. Rentfrow testified that he heard the Appellant say something 'under his breath' about nude photos. Again, this was not sexual harassment and not proof of misconduct," according to the arbitrator.

Motive said to be jealousy

William Smith, the Fresno-based attorney representing Goins and Rentfrow, said it appeared Hutton was jealous of the romantic relationship that existed between his clients.

Smith said the county is responsible for preventing sexual harassment from occurring in the workplace and for fully investigating the employees' claims.

"My clients feel that management was turning a blind eye and deaf ear to what was going on and to their complaints," he said.

Morse said he was "tempted" to respond to the allegations, but declined because the issue is a personnel matter.

"One of the unmitigated joys of my job is I frequently get sued, and it comes with the nature of this job," Morse said. "But we have great pride in having not paid out for any claims that have been made during the last seven years."

Roger Matzkind, Merced County chief civil litigator, said the county was recently served with the complaint and is still evaluating it.

"All I can say right now is we're reviewing it, and we'll provide a timely response," Matzkind said. "We believe it to be unfounded and we'll protect the taxpayer's money, but we can't discuss it beyond that at this point because it's a pending action."

The county has 21 days to respond to the complaint, Matzkind said.

Goins had been employed by the Merced County district attorney's office since November 2006; Rentfrow had worked there since April 2007.

Goins and Rentfrow are Dos Palos residents. They are seeking compensation for lost wages, emotional distress, and punitive damages against Hutton. A dollar amount was not identified in the complaint.

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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