Modesto pay bias case back to court

Two women who won $189,000 in an equal pay lawsuit against Modesto must take the city to trial again, a judge ruled.

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge William Mayhew determined that a jury's November decision in the case won't hold because an attorney submitted inadmissible evidence during the trial and a juror withheld pertinent information from lawyers.

Mayhew's decision means the city does not have to follow the jury's order to pay Finance Department customer service supervisors Jo Ann Bertolotti and Leslie Curtin back wages and interest for work they performed since 2002.

The judge urged the city and the women to reach a settlement. They have a case management conference scheduled in April.

"We're ready to get the same verdict, and it would be for higher damages," said Gary Goyette, the attorney who represented Bertolotti and Curtin. "The damages continue to accumulate depending on whether the city wants to go forward to try to resolve this."

City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood could not be reached for comment Friday.

Mayhew found that Goyette intentionally submitted inadmissible evidence at the trial when he asked a witness whether she was aware of a previous lawsuit filed against the city by three women who claimed they were underpaid compared to men.

Mayhew also ruled that a juror who worked for the city of Turlock should have disclosed during jury selection a workers compensation claim she filed against her employer.

Bertolotti and Curtin won the case by a 9-3 decision from the jury, the minimum standard in a civil lawsuit.

"The court finds that the prior experience of (the juror) is sufficient to indicate a bias in favor of the plaintiffs," Mayhew wrote.

Juror told attorney for the city

Modesto's attorney in the trial, Shelline Bennett, learned about the juror's conflict when they talked after the trial, according to court records.

The juror wrote in a letter of explanation to the court that she did not mention the claim earlier because she did not remember being asked about it and didn't think it would influence her decision in the trial.

Mayhew filed his ruling Jan. 4, but the city attorney's office did not have a hard copy of it and Goyette had not seen it when The Bee called Friday morning. He obtained a copy of it later in the day.

Goyette's question to city Deputy Personnel Director Barbara Santos referred to a March settlement in which the city agreed to pay $3.25 million to resolve a lawsuit filed by budget officer Debra Eggerman, solid waste division manager Jocelyn Reed and waste specialist Karin Rodriguez. They claimed they were denied promotions and punished when they raised questions about their employment.

Mayhew previously ordered the attorneys not to mention the case involving the March settlement.

Goyette said he raised the issue to counter an open-ended question the city's attorney asked Santos. The city filed a motion for a new trial the day of Santos' testimony, but Mayhew did not grant it then. The city refiled the motion in December.

Bertolotti and Curtin filed their lawsuit along with Fire Department business analyst Lori Martinez in July 2005, alleging that Modesto violated the California Equal Pay Act.

Martinez was split from the case at trial when Mayhew ruled that her claims had expired.

The women based much of their case on a 2002 internal investigation by the city's equal employment officer that concluded they were underpaid compared with a male colleague. Modesto issued the women back wages at that time but did not raise their salaries.

Instead, the city analyzed the report's findings and conducted other personnel studies that determined their salaries were appropriate under Modesto's gender-neutral pay classification system.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

Related stories from Modesto Bee