Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Tulare County Spends $300,000 On A Meritless Claim -- Why???

News media in the Central Valley has widely reported on Tulare County spending $300,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a deputy district attorney, Todd Zocchi.  He claims that he lost his job after complaining that his boss, Shani Jenkins, sexually harassed him. 

Tulare County indicates that the Ms. Jenkins complained that Mr. Zocchi harassed her and engaged in threatening behavior in November 2011.   The County also claims that Mr. Zocchi was fired for non-discriminatory reasons, presumably after an investigation. 

After he was fired, Mr. Zocchi filed a lawsuit claiming Ms. Jenkins sexually harassed him.  The County says that Mr. Zocchi's allegation was not made known until after the termination decision was made.  However, apparently, Mr. Zocchi claims he was fired because he earlier made the allegation. 

The County hired an investigator who evaluated the claims of both Zocchi and Jenkins.  Apparently, the investigator sided with Jenkins and did not find Zocchi to have a viable claim. 

An attorney took the case of Mr. Zocchi anyway.  Now the attorney and his client are walking away with $300,000. 

So why did the County pay $300,000 to settle what it claims is a baseless claim -- as recognized by an independent expert?  County Counsel indicated there are many reasons to settle a lawsuit.  She mentioned expense, disruption of business, and the consumption of time.  I might add the cost of Mr. Zocchi's attorneys' fees if he were to prevail. 

So what happened?  Your guess is as good as mine.  Perhaps the investigator did not perform a competent investigation.  Perhaps new witnesses surfaced corroborating Mr. Zocchi's position.  Perhaps the County knows more than it is telling the public.  Perhaps the termination came after Mr. Zocchi complained. 

Employers should recognize that a claim of retaliation may be viable even though a harassment claim is not viable.  Timing can be everything with retaliation claims. 

What should you do to prevent these types of claims?  First, have a functioning policy and procedure protecting against unlawful discrimination and harassment.  Conduct training.  Follow through on implementation of the policy. 

Second, investigate properly and promptly.  Hire a good investigator.  Make sure the investigation is thorough. 

Third, consider the timing of any adverse action.  If it is after a complaint is made, then you could face a retaliation complaint. 

Fourth, consider an arbitration provision taking these types of cases out of the public eye and away from a jury. 

At the end of the day, we are left without answers as to this case.  $300,000 is a big settlement for a "meritless" claim.   There is a story here and I would love to learn more about it. 

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