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Chavez v. Board of County Commissioners of Lake County

United States District Court, D. Colorado

November 6, 2019

MARIA CHAVEZ, CHELSA PARSONS, and NICOLE GARNER, Plaintiffs,
v.
THE BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS OF LAKE COUNTY, COLORADO, in its official capacity; THE LAKE COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE, a governmental entity; RODNEY FENSKE, in his official and individual capacity; FERNANDO MENDOZA, in his official and individual capacity; MARY ANN HAMMER, in her official and individual capacity, Defendants.

          ORDER DENYING LAKE COUNTY'S MOTION TO DISMISS

          William J. Martinez, United States District Judge

         Plaintiffs Maria Chavez, Chelsa Parsons, and Nicole Garner bring this lawsuit against the Board of County Commissioners of Lake County, Colorado (“Lake County” or “County”), the Lake County Sheriff's Office (“Sheriff's Office”), former Lake County Sheriff Rodney Fenske (“Sheriff Fenske”), former Lake County Undersheriff Fernando Mendoza (“Undersheriff Mendoza”), and the Sheriff's Office's dispatch supervisor, Marianne Hammer (“Hammer”). Plaintiffs allege various causes of action arising from sexual harassment they experienced while working for the Sheriff's Office.

         Currently before the Court is Lake County's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint and Jury Demand Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P 12(b)(6). (ECF No. 20.) For the reasons explained below, the motion is denied.

         I. LEGAL STANDARD

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a party may move to dismiss a claim in a complaint for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” The 12(b)(6) standard requires the Court to “assume the truth of the plaintiff's well-pleaded factual allegations and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Ridge at Red Hawk, LLC v. Schneider, 493 F.3d 1174, 1177 (10th Cir. 2007). In ruling on such a motion, the dispositive inquiry is “whether the complaint contains ‘enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Id. (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). Granting a motion to dismiss “is a harsh remedy which must be cautiously studied, not only to effectuate the spirit of the liberal rules of pleading but also to protect the interests of justice.” Dias v. City & Cnty. of Denver, 567 F.3d 1169, 1178 (10th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted). “Thus, ‘a well-pleaded complaint may proceed even if it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of those facts is improbable, and that a recovery is very remote and unlikely.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

         II. BACKGROUND

         The Court accepts the following as true for purposes of Lake County's motion.

         Plaintiffs worked as dispatchers at the Sheriff's Office until their departures in November 2017 (Chavez and Garner) and October 2018 (Parsons). (¶¶ 3-5.)[1] For much of their time there, they faced a sexually hostile work environment due to frequent and prolonged sexual harassment by Undersheriff Mendoza, whose conduct was “perpetuated” by Sheriff Fenske and others. (¶¶ 12-14, 16-28.) Mendoza also explicitly discouraged complaints to the County's human resources department, asserting that the Sheriff's Office was primarily responsible for its own human resources matters. (¶¶ 30-34.)

         In October 2017, Plaintiff Garner complained to a sheriff's deputy, who then relayed Garner's accusations to a Lake County deputy district attorney. (¶¶ 40-41.) The district attorney's office opened an investigation into Mendoza's conduct, and the County hired a law firm, Lyons Gaddis Kahn Hall Jeffers Dworak & Grant, P.C. (“Lyons Gaddis”), to conduct a separate investigation into Garner's complaint. (¶¶ 42-43.)

         Plaintiffs remained employed at the Sheriff's Office, and specifically working alongside Undersheriff Mendoza, during the two investigations. (¶¶ 46-47.) They found the situation stressful. (¶ 48.) In a conversation with Plaintiff Chavez, Lake County's director of human resources, Whittney Smyth-Smith, conceded that Chavez was “understandingly, nervous” about the situation but “claimed that nothing could be done.” (¶¶ 49-51.)

         The situation soon became even more stressful. In retaliation against Plaintiffs, Sheriff Fenske “informed the entire Sheriff's Office staff that the ‘solution' to the sexual harassment complaints was for everyone to avoid the dispatch area, where [Plaintiffs] worked, essentially alienating them.” (¶ 58.) As a result, “no one was available to cover the phones for [Plaintiffs] in their absence. It became virtually impossible for [them] to step away from their desks for any amount of time, even to use the restroom.” (¶ 59.) Then Plaintiffs' supervisor, Hammer, “sent an email to the entire office staff that the office water cooler, coffee machine, and refrigerator would be removed from the dispatch area.” (¶ 60.) This effectively “deprived [Plaintiffs] of food and drink during their shifts, because they could not leave the dispatch office in case the phone rang.” (¶ 61.) Sheriff Fenske also arranged for constant video surveillance of the dispatch office. (¶ 63.)

         On November 7, 2017, Plaintiffs gave interviews to the news media about the situation, which were broadcast on television and the Internet that same day. (¶¶ 67- 68.) One week later (November 14), Chavez resigned due to the treatment to which she was being subjected. (¶ 69.) Undersheriff Mendoza resigned or was terminated (Plaintiffs do not specify which) on November 20, 2017. (¶¶ 9, 44.) On November 28, Garner resigned, like Chavez, on account of the treatment she had received since the investigation began. (¶ 71.)

         In December 2017, a Lake County grand jury indicted Undersheriff Mendoza on seven charges, including two counts of second-degree official misconduct related to the sexual harassment of Plaintiffs. (¶¶ 11(f), 12.) The other five counts mostly related to sexual exploitation of his stepdaughter, which the prosecutors discovered because the stepdaughter learned of Plaintiffs' complaint against her stepfather and felt emboldened to speak out about his abuse at home. (¶¶ 11(a)-(e), 15, 93.)

         Parsons left the Sheriff's Office in October 2018 (¶ 5), but Plaintiffs allege nothing about the circumstances of her departure.

         In November 2018, non-party Amy Reyes was elected as the new sheriff of Lake County and “expressed a willingness to rehire Plaintiffs.” (¶¶ 74-75.) In December 2018, Undersheriff Mendoza stood trial on the sexual misconduct charges relating to his stepdaughter (the misconduct charges relating to Plaintiffs were severed), and the jury convicted him on two counts, including one felony count. (¶¶ 90-91.) Later the same month, Plaintiffs filed this lawsuit. (ECF No. 1.)

         On January 4, 2019, Reyes “heard back” from the County's human resources department “that the County would not hire any of the Plaintiffs until [this] lawsuit is over.” (¶ 76.)

         Reyes was sworn in as Sheriff on January 7, 2019. (¶ 80.) That day, she gave a television interview and expressed her desire “to clean up the Sheriff's Office.” (¶¶ 80, 85.) Whatever these clean-up efforts entailed, she “was prevented by the County from [carrying them out] for several more weeks.” (¶ 85.)[2]

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiffs bring four causes of action against Lake County:

• sex-based hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, specifically 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-2(a) (“Claim 1”);
• violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause, by way of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“Claim 2”);
• retaliation in violation of Title VII, specifically 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-3(a) (“Claim 3”); and
• retaliation for constitutionally protected speech in violation of the First Amendment, by way of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“Claim 4”).

(ECF No. 7 at 17-25.)

         Lake County first challenges “the Plaintiffs' 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim” (apparently overlooking that there are two of them), and then attacks “[a]ll claims brought against [the County] pursuant to Title VII.” (ECF No. 20 at 6.) The Court will address these arguments in turn.

         A. ...


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