BENICIA -- A California appellate court has reversed a verdict Benicia won in a case involving allegations of sexual harassment, ranging from obscene jokes to sharing graphic pornography on city computers.
In a published opinion issued Wednesday, the District Court of Appeal in San Francisco sided with plaintiff and former city intern Brian Lewis. The justices held that the trial judge erred in excluding certain evidence in 2011. The unanimous ruling reversed a jury's special verdict that Lewis proved some parts of his retaliation claim but hadn't suffered harm.
Also, the justices reversed a pretrial ruling in which Solano County Superior Court Judge Robert Bowers threw out Lewis' claims of sexual harassment against the city and former water treatment plant supervisor Steve Hickman.
City Attorney Heather Mc Laughlin said in an email Thursday she will be evaluating the decision and scheduling a closed session meeting with the City Council to consider the next step. Options include appealing the ruling to the state Supreme Court, settling or going to trial again.
Lewis' attorneys, Bruce McIntosh and Rhonda Kraeber, declined to comment on their next move. "We make it a practice not to comment on case strategy," McIntosh said in an email Thursday.
The lawsuit, filed in 2009, stems from a series of events at the city's water treatment plant over a 14-month period beginning in March 2008.
Lewis, 46, a former volunteer and plant intern, claimed he was harassed by two successive supervisors, Hickman and Rick Lantrip, who both took early retirement in lieu of termination and demotion, respectively, following an internal city investigation.
Lewis further claimed he was retaliated against for blowing the whistle on Hickman. Lewis said he was removed from his apprentice position and only allowed to return after he forced the issue up the chain of command. He also claimed he was unjustly accused of stealing a city laptop, harassing a co-worker and poor work performance.
Lewis claimed Hickman repeatedly exposed him to graphic pornography at work and showered him with unwanted gifts, such as a pair of tuxedo-decorated boxer shorts, wine, picnic baskets, apparel, hats and scarves.
However, in a pretrial ruling, Bowers threw out the allegations of sexual harassment, finding they were not directed at Lewis because of his sex and were not "so severe or pervasive that they created a hostile work environment."
Bowers also excluded any evidence of the alleged sexual harassment at trial.
The appellate court found the sexual harassment claim against Hickman should have stood because "a reasonable jury could infer he was pursuing a relationship with Lewis and was acting from genuine sexual interest."
Though Hickman argued his conduct was "mere banter among male co-workers," the higher court cited a recent legislative amendment to California's Fair Employment and Housing Act that states: "Sexually harassing conduct need not be motivated by sexual desire."
The appellate court affirmed Bowers' ruling that Lantrip's alleged actions, however, did not amount to sexual harassment.
Following Hickman's departure in 2008, Lewis was supervised by Lantrip, a former city maintenance mechanic who had been promoted to acting supervisor. But the workplace controversies did not subside, and in August 2009, the union filed another grievance, this time against Lantrip, alleging similar abuses.
During a subsequent city internal investigation, Lantrip allegedly admitted he had looked at "adult sexual humor" on workplace computers and had shown those items to "other employees," according to court documents.
He did not challenge the findings of the city's investigation, and chose early retirement over being demoted to his former position.
Contact staff writer Tony Burchyns at email@example.com or 707-553-6831. Follow him on Twitter @tonyburchyns.