(CN) – The Los Angeles Police Department does not have to pay $2 million for firing a traffic cop who made unsubstantiated sexual harassment charges against a male supervisor, a California appeals court ruled.
Officer Richard Joaquin said he refused to go on a date with Sgt. James Sands, so Sands retaliated against him in 2005.
During an Internal Affairs investigation, Joaquin described about 14 months of questionable interactions with Sands. Sands allegedly complimented Joaquin’s arms and other men’s bodies, and he often showed up to watch Joaquin at traffic stops. Sands also allegedly made flirtatious comments, such as asking Joaquin if he planned to take a shower or if they could talk on the phone when Joaquin had “desk duty.”
When Internal Affairs concluded that Joaquin’s harassment claims were unfounded, however, Sands filed his own complaint against Joaquin. The department then held a Board of Rights hearing, which found that Joaquin had filed a false complaint. Though the board recognized Joaquin’s “right to silence,” it said his otherwise “aggressive” personality traits made it likely that he would have reported Sands sooner if the allegations were true. “[Joaquin] certainly was not portrayed as being meek or someone that would allow himself to be victimized in the manner that he described,” the board’s findings said. “We find it hard to believe that his assertion of his embarrassment over the incident would keep him from bringing it to the department’s attention.”
After the police chief accepted the board’s firing recommendation, Joaquin sought review in superior court. A judge found that Joaquin’s assertive personality very well may have led him to stay quiet about Sands’ alleged advances, since an anti-gay atmosphere in the department could have led other officers to discriminate against him. The department reinstated Joaquin in 2009, but it reassigned him to a different division and has not promoted yet him to sergeant.
Joaquin in turn sued the department for wrongful retaliatory termination in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act. A jury ultimately awarded him $2 million for lost wages and emotional distress.
But California’s Second Appellate District reversed the verdict Monday.
“Having reviewed the entire record, we agree that Joaquin did not present substantial evidence that his termination was motivated by retaliatory animus, a necessary element of his claim,” Justice Steven Suzukawa wrote for the court.
While Joaquin claimed the Internal Affairs investigation was steeped in retaliatory animus, Suzukawa noted that the Board of Rights is the body that recommended that Joaquin lose his job.
“Joaquin did not identify the members of the Board of Rights or introduce any direct evidence that any member of the Board of Rights knew him or had a desire to retaliate against him,” Suzukawa wrote.