Merced County told to reject harassment claim

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comAugust 27, 2013 

— Merced County officials are recommending the rejection of a claim from two former employees of the district attorney's office who filed a civil lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and retaliation.

However, attorneys on both sides said this is just a "procedural step" and won't make a difference on the pending civil case.

County officials reviewed the claims for damages from Diane Goins, 41, a former investigative assistant, and Wesley Rentfrow, 35, a former criminal investigator.

According to county documents, the risk management department "initiated an investigation of the facts of the claim which indicates the claim should be rejected."

The county Board of Supervisors will vote to approve the decision during its meeting today.

Goins and Rentfrow, both of Dos Palos, claim their supervisor, Merle Wayne Hutton, subjected them to harassment, unwarranted discipline and termination as retaliation. They filed a civil lawsuit in July.

Fresno-based attorney William Smith, who's representing Goins and Rentfrow, said the county's rejection of the claim doesn't affect his clients' ability to move forward with the lawsuit.

"They're saying there's no substantial basis for it, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found the opposite," Smith said. The Department of Justice also issued a "right-to-sue" letter, he added.

Roger Matzkind, Merced County's chief civil litigator, said the county is preparing its response to the complaint, which has to be sent by Sept. 24.

Matzkind would not elaborate on whether the county will file a motion to dismiss the case. "We'll protect the taxpayer's money," he said.

Matzkind said the rejection of the claim gives the defendants six months to file a lawsuit, which they already have, and the opportunity to amend the complaint to add additional causes of action.

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

The lawsuit said Hutton 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.

Hutton said he had no comment Monday night.

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

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