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State judiciary paid out $1.9 million since 2018 to settle intercourse harassment claims

The state court system paid nearly $ 2 million in court settlements for sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation against court employees between 2018 and 2020, newly released records show.

That sum includes a previously undisclosed payment of $ 40,000 in 2018 to settle a lawsuit in the San Diego Superior Court by a woman who said she was sexually abused by a family court mediator during a mediation trial in 2017.

And it also includes a previously undisclosed payment of $ 250,000 to one of 17 women who said they were repeatedly harassed by former Second District Court judge Jeffrey Johnson. The Los Angeles-based judge was removed from the bank last year in a high-profile hearing by the state judicial commission, which concluded that his misconduct was “a violation of the dignity of the judiciary.”

The woman, Trisha Vellez, filed a lawsuit in the Los Angeles Supreme Court in March 2020 alleging a five-year pattern of sexual harassment by Johnson that included questions about her sexual history and a series of sexually suggestive comments. She worked as a paralegal at the Court of Appeal.

The settlement was reached in September, four months after the commission recommended ousting Johnson from the bank and four months before the decision was ratified by the state Supreme Court. But there was no public announcement of the amount of money the state paid to Vellez.

The bulk of the total severance pay for the three years, about $ 1.4 million, was paid to settle a federal lawsuit filed by four former deputy marshals who said they were the subject of harassment and retaliation before Shasta County Superior Court.

The payout includes a prize of $ 632,000 from a federal jury that heard the case and $ 615,956 in attorney fees, according to the records.

The state also paid to settle claims from Merced Counties and Tulare Counties, as well as two settlements involving employees of the Justice Council, the administrative arm of the state’s judicial system.

All settlement documents contain similar wording, stating that the agreement is not an admission of liability or misconduct by the court or any person.

The settlement payments over the past three full years mean the court system has spent $ 2.5 million since 2011 to resolve claims of sexual harassment or discrimination by judges or court clerks. In March 2018, the council announced that it had paid out $ 600,750 in settlements and attorney’s fees to settle allegations against three judges and two court clerks.

This disclosure came amid the major reckoning of sexual misconduct in government and the private sector caused by the Me Too movement. The state courts released the information in response to requests from The San Diego Union-Tribune and other media outlets for a financial settlement over sexual misconduct brought by the judiciary over the past decade.

While the courts are exempt from state public records law, the judiciary has its own file access process, but it has numerous exceptions, including one that makes many judges’ records confidential.

This rule was changed in 2018 so that money settlements with judges charged with misconduct are now public as long as the judge is named in the settlement documents.

In the San Diego Superior Court incident, Annabelle Cardinia alleged in a lawsuit filed in February 2018 that she was groped and kissed by a family court mediator in August 2017. Court records show that she and the father of her children participated in court-ordered mediation on custody issues.

The lawsuit said the mediator, Joseph Rodriguez, rubbed her thighs and hips, told her she was pretty, kissed her forehead and cheek, and touched her “inappropriately and without her consent”.

Cardinia reported the incident and opened an investigation by the San Diego Sheriff’s Department. The lawsuit said a DNA swab exposed the mediator’s DNA on her forehead and alleged another court clerk told Cardinia there had been previous complaints about Rodriguez.

In an email response to questions last week, court public affairs spokeswoman Emily Cox wrote that the court had no complaints against Rodriguez for “sexual harassment, assault or similar conduct” and that allegations of previous complaints against him were inaccurate .

The San Diego District Attorney has never filed charges. Cox said the court conducted its own investigation and concluded that the allegations were unfounded. She said the court agreed to the settlement in order to avoid the costs, delays and uncertainties of litigation and trial.

Rodriguez, who was hired in 2011, still works for the court. He did not respond to inquiries submitted through the court or to a message left for him in the courthouse.

Cardinia was unavailable for comment and her lawyer did not reply to two messages.

Johnson served as an appellate judge since 2009. He was accused by the Justice Commission in 2019 of molesting 17 women, including another judge on the appellate court, for nearly a decade.

Johnson denied the most serious charges against him and slandered his accusers, the commission’s decision reads, and although he admitted minor misconduct, he attributed it to his “kindness.”

The dismissal of an appellate judge for misconduct is rare: only two other judges have been formally charged with disciplinary sanctions since 1960.

Johnson could not be reached for comment on the settlement. Velez’s attorney, Kelli Burritt, said Vellez had been silent about the harassment for years and believed – like other women who testified at the hearings – that she was the only victim.

“It took someone to finally call in to complain, and then the floodgates opened,” she said. “These women were really afraid to come forward, especially when faced with an appeals court. “

The Shasta County case involved four court MPs who filed a lawsuit in 2014 alleging sexual harassment and discrimination by a male manager and whom they complained about when they complained. After years of legal back-and-forth, in which three of the four had dismissed their part of the trial, a federal jury in Sacramento chose Ms. Jaime Schmidt.