BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) – To “test” its women employees, a water district staged a frightening, boneheaded armed robbery that left a cashier “crying hysterically,” the woman claims in court.
Kathy Lee sued Taft-based West Kern Water District and four of its managers: accounting supervisor Ginny Miller, safety manager Sam Traffenstedt, quality control manager Gary Hamilton, and general manager Harry Starkey, in Kern County Court.
Lee, a cashier at the district office, says, “Many of the district’s customers elected to pay their monthly water service invoices in cash. As a result, it was not unusual for the district’s office to have large sums of cash on any given business day.”
Taft is a small town in Central Valley grape country. Many residents of the area are farmworkers, who do not have bank accounts.
Because they handled so much cash, Lee says, supervisors trained cashiers what to do if someone tried to rob them.
Soon after the training, Lee says, the supervisors “conspired with one another and formed a plan to put the district’s employees’ recent training to a live action ‘test.’ In furtherance of this conspiracy, the supervising defendants … formulated a plan to conduct an armed robbery at the district’s office to test the reactions of the district’s female employees, including plaintiff,” the complaint states.
So one Friday morning, the supervisors gave all the male employees work outside the office, leaving the four female cashiers alone in the front area, Lee says.
Lee claims quality control manager Hamilton then came inside, disguised in a “ski mask, sunglasses and a hat,” according to the complaint.
“Hamilton approached plaintiff’s counter area and roughly slammed down a large paper bag onto her counter area. Hamilton, still in disguise and unrecognized by plaintiff, then aggressively turned and pointed at the bag, directing plaintiff’s attention to a hand-written message contained on the bag. The message on the bag simply read: ‘I have a gun put your money in the bag,'” the complaint states.
Frightened half to death, Lee says, she tried to push the silent alarm button beneath the counter. But Hamilton knew what she was doing, and pounded on the counter and jerking his finger at the note to scare her.
“Following aggressive cues from the disguised Hamilton, plaintiff began to fill the bag with money from her cash drawer. Plaintiff, however, was trembling with such fear that she was fumbling putting the money in the bag. This led to Hamilton again raising his fist to plaintiff and again pounding on the counter in order to prompt plaintiff to fill the bag faster,” the complaint states.
“Once plaintiff had placed all the money in the bag, she handed it over to Hamilton, who still remained in disguise. Plaintiff’s only thought when she was handing the bag of money to the disguised Hamilton was, ‘Please don’t shoot me anyway.'”
Hamilton grabbed the bag of money and ran out the door, and Lee says she immediately “began writing a description of the person whom she believed had just robbed her at gunpoint.”
She adds: “(D)uring the robbery, fellow district employee Rosa Rodriguez panicked when she was not able to locate the silent alarm button at her station and fled the front area … to find help.” Lee claims that the apparent armed robbery left Rodriguez “so distraught … that she was unable to get an outside line on a phone” to call 911.
Before Rodriguez could make the 911 call, Lee says, water district employee Deanna Gregory entered the lobby and told the frightened women “to stop what they were doing because she did not believe that the robbery was in fact real.”
Lee says she does not know if Gregory knew ahead of time about the staged robbery. Gregory is not a party to the complaint.
“After Gregory’s announcement that she believed the robbery had been staged, Miller, Traffenstedt and Starkey entered the lobby area and announced that the robbery was just an ‘exercise.’ Following this pronouncement, plaintiff’s emotions broke and she began shaking and crying hysterically,” Lee says. She claims the supervisors then put the four women into separate rooms and told them to stay there. She says she stayed alone in the room for nearly an hour, still crying uncontrollably.
“Plaintiff tried to continue working, but became extremely nervous anytime a customer entered the district’s office. Plaintiff continued to fight back tears while she attempted to dutifully continue working as defendant Miller had instructed her,” the complaint states.
Lee says she tried to finish her shift, but was so upset that Miller let her leave early that afternoon.
“Following the incident, plaintiff was unable to return to work for an extended period of time due to the constant fear she suffered,” the complaint states.
Lee says she suffers from insomnia, nightmares, and depression because of the staged robbery, and was “subjected to the unwanted and humiliating attention by the press and ridicule by various members of the public who had learned of the incident.”
She seeks punitive damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault, and violation of the California Unruh Act.
She is represented by Craig Braun with Dake, Braun, & Monje.
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