The agency that runs California’s prisons has settled a gender discrimination lawsuit by two of its female special agents for $2.3 million, in what is believed to be the largest settlement of its kind for gender discrimination, including failure to promote, and sexual harassment within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Parker and LaPorta v. CDCR, Keirnan and Diaz Case No. 2:18-cv-02646-TNL-AC in the Eastern District of California.
The two agents, Parker and LaPorta, are highly decorated special agents in the CDCR Office of Correctional Safety, considered an elite unit within CDCR. Of the 135 special agents in OCS, only five of them were women. Their lawsuit describes institutionalized practices of gender discrimination that impeded them from advancing despite their superior credentials and accomplishments, and enforcement of a “good old boys club” code that perpetuated a glass ceiling for women seeking top positions.
The plaintiffs say they brought the lawsuit in the hope of changing the culture within the Office of Correctional Safety and of finally opening the top ranks of leadership to women. OCS has never had a woman serve in its highest levels of leadership, including in the roles of Deputy Chief or Chief. The agency passed over promoting one plaintiff to the position of Deputy Chief, even though she ranked first in the competitive interview process and had served as Special Agent in Charge for many years, a role that in most instances serves as a stepping stone to the Deputy Chief position. In another instance, she was passed over for promotion in favor of a man who was the subject of a gender discrimination lawsuit. The other plaintiff worked in the field, in a warrant service unit, where she pursued and arrested wanted felons and escapees. Although she willingly accepted the risk that was inherent in her job duties, the retaliation from her superiors and peers following her complaints of gender discrimination was such that she faced far greater risks than her counterparts. In retaliation for her complaints, they also interfered with her working relationships with other law enforcement agencies, making her job much more difficult and dangerous. She too was denied well deserved promotions and was forced to watch lesser qualified men pass her by.
Before filing a lawsuit, both agents tried to make change by bringing their concerns about the glass ceiling and gender discrimination to their superiors. This included making complaints to former CDCR Secretary Scott Kernan and the then Undersecretary of the Department Ralph Diaz (who later became the Secretary of the Department). Documents and testimony gathered during the lawsuit established that neither of these officials took any action on the complaints, including failure to abide by the CDCR’s own internal process. The women agents were left with one recourse – a lawsuit.
The Plaintiffs brought the failures of Ralph Diaz to the legislature’s attention after he was nominated as Secretary of the Department. Their concerns were dismissed, and he was approved as Secretary. Despite being touted as the golden boy by his supporters and making an explicit commitment to address gender equity in the department, Mr. Diaz resigned his position two years later without progress on issues of gender equity. In fact, during his tenure the number of women Special Agents in OCS went from five to two.
Additionally, one Plaintiff made a complaint to the Office of the Inspector General who is supposed to be the watchdog agency addressing such conduct in CDCR. Yet, now, almost 18 months after the retaliation report was brought to the OIG’s attention, they have yet to even begin an investigation.
The lawsuit, which began in the fall of 2018, alleged civil rights violations under state and federal law. According to the employees’ attorney, Leslie F. Levy, events that occurred during the lawsuit added to the claims of retaliation. “It is all too common that women in law enforcement are expected to put up with discrimination and abuse. And it is frighteningly easy for powerful higher-ups to send the message that it is dangerous to speak out against the agency. Our clients overcame a lot to stand up for their rights and demand an end to discrimination and to stop what they experienced as a barrage of intimidation and retaliation.”
Unfortunately, the agency has not gotten the message despite the repeated settlements it has been forced to pay out. CDCR continues to discriminate against women and people of color and then engages in or tolerates retaliation against those who attempt to enforce their civil rights and demand that the agency abide by the law.
The people of the State of California would be better served if CDCR would truly address the discrimination in the hiring process and make a concerted effort to investigate and take appropriate action against high-ranking employees who engage in discrimination, harassment, and retaliation through independent and unbiased investigations rather than leaving dedicated agents no option but to pursue a lawsuit.
The plaintiffs were represented by Jenny Huang of Justice First LLP and Leslie F. Levy of Levy Vinick Burrell Hyams LLP, a law firm devoted to representing employees in workplace disputes. For further information regarding the matter, visit www.levyvinick.com or call Leslie F. Levy at 510-318-7705.