Hearing Set for Ex-Dispatcher’s Wrongful Firing Claim Against Gilroy Police Department

Former Gilroy police dispatcher Patricia Harrell’s wrongful termination lawsuit against the city continues to wend its way through court, despite a federal judge’s ruling last summer that dismissed most of her original allegations

A hearing on the case is scheduled for Feb. 7 at the U.S. District Court in San Jose, where Judge Lucy Koh will hear the city’s motion to dismiss the rest of Harrell’s claims that she was discriminated against, treated unfairly and wrongfully terminated from the position she held at Gilroy Police Department for 25-plus years

Gilroy and its police department filed a motion three months ago to dismiss Harrell’s allegations of discrimination based on age and gender, retaliation and failure to investigate or prevent wrongdoing. City attorneys argue that Harrell failed to support her claims with factual evidence and, in some instances, failed to prove that the police department violated any laws or policies. The motion claims Harrell “re-engineered alleged facts” after the judge previously dismissed some of her original claims.

The city also maintains that the defendants are entitled to “qualified immunity” from at least one of Harrell’s accusations. “Plaintiff has had more than ample opportunity to allege plausible claims and has not done so,” per the motion prepared by attorney Carmen Plaza de Jennings, who wants the judge to dismiss it.

Harrell’s attorneys, of the Costanzo Law Firm in San Jose, responded in an Oct. 31 filing that the city “misrepresented” Harrell’s allegations and that the defendant merely seeks to delay legal proceedings. Harrell also accuses the city of raising new arguments against claims she has been making since 2017.

Harrell says the city’s motion to dismiss is based on the disingenuous allegation that deleted all factual allegations relating to age and gender discrimination. “Plaintiff respectfully requests that defendants’ motion be denied, or in the alternative, be given leave to amend,” her response concludes.

Also named as defendants are former police Chief Denise Turner, Capt. Joseph Deras, Capt. Kurt Svardal, police communications supervisor Steve Ynzunza and Gilroy Human Resources Director LeeAnn McPhillips

Harrell, who is in her 50s, was fired from her job as a Gilroy police and fire dispatcher in March 2016. She originally filed the wrongful termination lawsuit in August 2017, then alleging pervasive sexual misconduct within the city’s police force, in addition to the current allegations. Harrell’s current complaint is the third one filed since then. Her lawyers have amended it twice, based on direction from the judge

In her response to the city’s October motion, Harrell submitted documentation of her previous efforts to appeal her firing. This includes a 2016 complaint filed with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which was subsequently withdrawn due to Harrell’s plans to file a lawsuit.

She also showed the court a March 28, 2016, letter from her then-attorney to McPhillips that contested her firing. Harrell was terminated after an internal affairs investigation into a complaint that she made racially insensitive remarks to a colleague.

Harrell’s attorney in 2016 claimed she was denied due process rights throughout the investigation, and that she suffered stress-related medical conditions because of the way she was treated by supervisors who retaliated against her for pointing out their unfair conduct, according to a letter appealing her termination.

A 2016 letter addressed from Gilroy’s personnel division to Harrell also describes investigating her claims that a supervisor tried to convince her to have sex with him and his wife, maintained nude photographs of his wife in his department locker and that the top brass knew about those allegations. The city deemed the claims false, according to the letter, based on “the preponderance of the evidence.”

The 2015 investigation into Harrell’s conduct or claims was not the first. A 2008 letter from then-police Chief Turner referenced Harrell being investigated for an unspecified infraction. Harrell’s lawsuit previously claimed that probe involved claims that she verbally attacked two officers.

Harrell maintains that the city discriminated against her based on age and gender. Specifically, Harrell alleges that her supervisor, Deras, once told her during an argument that she and “the people who have been here a long time think your shit don’t stink.” Plus, as their professional relationship deteriorated in the months leading up to her termination, Deras allegedly assigned Harrell to the “worst possible shift” even though, as senior dispatcher, she was entitled to first choice of assignments, her complaint says.

Harrell’s lawsuit also claims Deras “overloaded Ms. Harrell with dispatcher duties, training duties and overtime” in the months leading up to her termination. When she complained to other supervisors and HR, she was ignored, Harrell alleges.

Michael Moore is an award-winning journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor for the Morgan Hill Times, Hollister Free Lance and Gilroy Dispatch since 2008. During that time, he has covered crime, breaking news, local government, education, entertainment and more.

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