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Making a Stand: Public Works employee Scott Santiago says he became the subject of derision at work.
Local lawsuit tests the boundaries of sexual harassment
By Janet Wells
IT'S A GOOD THING that Douglas Gow, Sonoma County claims assessment manager, is proud of the county's record on sexual harassment. Gow--along with the county Public Works Department, county Risk Management, and several county employees--once again is in the glare of public scrutiny over yet another high-profile sexual harassment case. This time, however, it involves a complaint about gutter language brought by a heterosexual man and is working its way toward a legal showdown.
It's a strange road to the courthouse.
The way Public Works Department employee and plaintiff Scott Santiago, 45, tells it, one of his co-workers stepped over--way over--the line with "boys will be boys" behavior. And county management did little to remedy the situation.
Hamo Sega, a truck driver for the county, was transferred in 1993 to the Cotati road maintenance yard, where he met Santiago, also a truck driver in the yard. According to Santiago's wife, Susan, "Almost instantly [Sega] started picking on Scott," first making comments about Santiago's "manhood" in reference to fertility problems he and his wife were having.
The situation progressed to daily name calling, according to court documents. Sega allegedly called Santiago "fag," "faggot," and "butt-doctor." Sega, who is married and declared himself a heterosexual in court documents, allegedly threatened to "butt-fuck" Santiago, and reportedly slammed a shovel against the driver's side window of a county truck Santiago was driving, yelling, "I will kill you, you son of a bitch. I will fuck you up."
The list of allegations goes on throughout 1993 and 1994: Sega announcing in front of numerous co-workers that he had "butt-fucked" Santiago during the previous weekend night shift; Sega slapping Santiago in the face; Sega grabbing Santiago in a headlock in front of yard supervisors.
Santiago continually asked Sega to knock it off, and talked several times to his crew boss, Gary Caselli, as well as to his area manger, Ron Rowton, he says. His supervisors tackled the problem by meeting with him weekly and pressuring him to sign a statement that everything was A-OK at work, he adds.
"My immediate supervisors were ineffective," Santiago says. "They didn't have any plan on how to deal with this. They wanted to keep it within the yard, be good ol' boys, rather than go to their supervisors and get help with the problem."
Santiago, a county employee for more than 10 years, wanted Sega transferred, but the two continued on the same seven-person crew for almost two years. Sega eventually was penalized for his behavior toward Santiago--seven days off without pay--and moved to the Refuse Disposal department in 1995.
Santiago, who has remained on the job full time, suffered severe nightmares during his interactions with Sega, and was prescribed antidepressant medication. Yard supervisor Rowton advised Santiago that "all hell would break loose" if he took his complaints outside the road yard, but Santiago and his wife hired an attorney, who filed a claim against the county in 1995, Susan says. The claim was denied by the county, and the couple filed suit in Superior Court in March 1996.
"We went into this to get Scott some therapy. My husband is a normal guy, kind of on the sensitive side. ... He's been trying to do what's right, rather than act like that bunch of animals," says Susan. "The county is not dealing with the problem they have, the caveman attitude: that these guys can be totally gross; as long as it's all guys, then there's nothing wrong."
AT A SETTLEMENT hearing on April 2, the two sides were no closer. The Santiagos want better mandatory training against sexual harassment and workplace violence for all county employees, as well as an unspecified amount for damages.
"For the county to recognize its failures and force change in the manner of operation--the only way to make them concur is to make them pay," says Hugh Helm, the Santiagos' attorney. "The posture of the county is quite inflexible. The most they would suggest is what would give [Scott] Santiago a pat on the back for bringing this to the county's attention. That might have been appropriate two years ago. But this has been horrendous.
"They have made it as difficult as possible to bring this to resolution."
The county continued to play hardball this week, trying to get Santiago's claim of sexual harassment dismissed on the basis that the plaintiff and defendant are of the same gender and proclivity.
"There is no evidence that Scott Santiago was harassed because he was a male," court documents by the county's attorneys at the Santa Rosa firm of Senneff, Kelly, Kimelman & Miller argued. "Both Scott Santiago and Sega are heterosexual males. This was an all-male work atmosphere. Scott Santiago was annoyed and embarrassed because he was called a 'fag.' 'butt-doctor,' and 'homo.' He was not sexually harassed."
In a tentative ruling on Friday, April 4, Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Lloyd Von Der Mehden nixed that argument. "The cause ... of sexual harassment may be stated by a member of the same sex as the alleged harasser on the hostile environment theory," the judge ruled.
On Monday, April 7, however, Von Der Mehden seemed to have second thoughts, saying he would take the matter under advisement and issue a written ruling.
The county's argument is a recycled legal tactic in same-gender sexual harassment cases, says Barbara Kelley, who conducts trainings in dealing with sexual harassment and investigates complaints at Sonoma State University. The tactic to dismiss has been successful in some cases and not in others. Same-gender harassment cases have far more uncharted legal territory than the well-recognized male-female version, and several conflicting court rulings. But workplace environment, not gender, is the key issue in sexual harassment cases, Kelley explains.
Is it acceptable for shipyard workers to call each other four-letter words or use sexual innuendo? Do members of a high school football team think it's fun, or intimidating, to slap each other on the butt? It's up to management to set standards for employee interactions, Kelley says.
"When you have people in a work environment where it is hostile based on race or sex, or it interferes with employees' ability to perform work, then the courts do not look favorably on that work environment," she says. "If the county knows [of alleged sexual harassment], they are required to take action, and it must be timely and appropriate.
"If [the plaintiffs] can show that the county did not respond in a timely fashion, that's what matters."
In a recent letter to the Independent responding to a story about a sexual harassment claim against the Sheriff's Department, county claims manager Gow stated that he would be "proud to compare Sonoma County's record with that of any other county in this state." But Gow's contention that there have been 20 to 25 sexual harassment and gender discrimination claims against the county in the last decade was contradicted in a deposition filed in the Santiago case by the county's own affirmative action coordinator, Yvonne Henderson, who pegged the number at around 30 claims between 1994 and 1996.
In the letter, Gow further stated his belief that "county management is fully aware of employees' rights to be free of any type of discriminatory conduct, takes immediate and appropriate steps to investigate any allegations of misconduct, and disciplines the wrongdoers when necessary."
Scott Santiago counters that training for Public Works Department employees was inadequate to start with and hasn't been conducted since 1992. According to Susan Santiago, Ed Walker, director of the department, said at a meeting with the Santiagos and attorneys from both sides that his managers are "in the 1940s and '50s, and you can send them to all the sexual harassment trainings you want and it won't do any good."
Getting the county's side of the story directly is nigh impossible since attorney Clay Christianson, the outside counsel hired for the case, won't comment, and everyone related to the case has been instructed to zip their lips.
Hamo Sega? Didn't return calls. Douglas Gow? Ditto.
What's the work environment like in the Cotati yard? "I can't talk about it," says Ron Rowton. "I have instructions from county counsel that I'm not to discuss it."
Does Gary Caselli have the same instructions? "Yes, absolutely," Rowton adds.
Looks like they'll be doing their talking in court. Santiago vs. County of Sonoma is scheduled to go to trial on Sept. 5.
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From the April 10-16, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent
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