A Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control officer is suing the county, alleging she was sexually harassed by a co-worker and that false complaints he filed against her forced her to accept a demotion out of fear she could lose her job.
Sara Berrelleza's Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit alleges sex and gender harassment, whistleblower retaliation and general retaliation. The suit filed Monday seeks unspecified damages.
Berrelleza was hired by the department in 2008 and reached the rank of animal control officer III in 2015, the suit states. She was assigned to the Downey facility when Marcos Vega, an animal control III supervisor, was reassigned there from the Baldwin Park facility in June 2018 because of a sexual harassment complaint made against him there, according to the suit.
Shortly thereafter, Vega began making inappropriate remarks to Berrelleza, touched her without permission and stared at her, the suit alleges.
"On one occasion, Vega put his arm around plaintiff as if they were boyfriend and girlfriend and tapped on her shoulder while his arm was around her," the suit states.
An instructor for the county's sexual harassment training acknowledged that Vega's conduct amounted to sexual harassment, the suit states. But when Berrelleza complained about Vega to her immediate supervisor, the boss "quickly cut plaintiff off and abruptly ended the conversation," the suit states.
That same day, Berrelleza asked to speak with the manager of the Downey facility, the suit states. But the manager told her that an internal complaint was filed against her and that she was being transferred to the Baldwin Park animal care center, increasing the daily commute time to work considerably for the plaintiff, who was breast-feeding her newborn baby, the suit states.
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"The complaint was orchestrated and instigated by Marcos Vega," the suit alleges.
Most of the Baldwin Park center supervisors were friends of Vega and she was subjected her to more retaliation there, the suit states. She was given an isolated work space and was not given overtime opportunities offered to others of her rank, the suit states. The Baldwin Park manager issued her a "bogus written reprimand" in November 2018, the suit states.
Days later, she asked the department's human resources manager for a transfer to the Carson facility, but never received a reply, the suit states.
In March, the human resources manager told her she could either accept a demotion to animal control officer II and a transfer to the Norwalk facility, or she would be involuntarily reduced in rank to an animal control officer I, the suit states.
"(Berrelleza) accepted the voluntary reduction in rank because she was a single mother in sole support for her children and was terrified that she would be terminated," the suit states. "(She) was never interviewed or shown any details or documents about the alleged complaints made against her that were orchestrated by Vega and her supervisor."
The human resources manager dictated a handwritten letter that Berrelleza wrote, falsely stating the reason for her voluntary reduction in rank, according to the suit.