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A tale of two suits

Arroyo Grande stands by its police chief after a second sexual harassment lawsuit is filed

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Their lawsuits were filed more than a year apart, but two colleagues have painted an unpleasant picture of the work environment for female officers within the Arroyo Grande Police Department, as well as a highly unflattering portrait of an allegedly misogynistic top brass.

City officials have resolutely stood by the department and its chief, Steven Annibali, and countered that both officers in question have, at some point, been the focus of separate investigations into misconduct on the job and remain on administrative leave.

As is often the case in inter-departmental politics and he-said she-said-based lawsuits, few people are talking. But the two lawsuits—one filed in September 2010, one filed in December 2011—essentially tell the same tale, though it’s unclear to what degree, if any, the two women collaborated on their suits.

Kimberly Martin and Michelle Cota are decorated senior sworn officers with the department, having been previously commended for their job performance and awarded the officer of the year award in 2002 and 2004, respectively. Martin has been with the department since 1998, Cota since 2003.

According to their complaints, in May 2007—four months before Annibali took over as chief—both officers complained of unspecified sexual harassment by a male colleague. Following an investigation into their complaint, that colleague was allegedly offered a full retirement in lieu of disciplinary action.

The officers claim that their complaint led to a mandatory department meeting administered by Mayor Tony Ferrera, where the officers say they were “chastised” by the mayor, then “ostracized” by fellow employees.

In a subsequent interview with New Times, Ferrera said at no point did he dismiss the officers’ allegations.

“In the ‘all hands’ meeting, the only message I got across was that the city has a zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment. I gave it to them straight and I gave it to them direct,” Ferrera told New Times. “That was and is our policy … the way it should be for every city.”

Life on the job grew worse following that meeting, the complaints read, when new chief Annibali allegedly began instituting a number of new departmental policies. A work-related injury compounded the tension. According to Martin’s complaint, she filed a worker’s compensation claim in October 2009 following a fall in the women’s locker room, which she said later caused significant pain in her back. She retained a physician, who confirmed a torn muscle, according to the complaint. The claim was later denied, Martin alleges, because of a retaliatory effort by Annibali.

Cota reportedly went out on approved medical leave for an unspecified surgery from late 2008 to early 2009, according to her complaint.

The complaints also allege that Annibali instituted a new grooming and dress code—the “Personal Appearance Standards Directive”—that was only strictly enforced on females. Martin claims to have been told by male colleagues that Annibali said “women would cause problems” with the new policy because they “were spoiled and had been given free reign” prior to his arrival.

According to Cota’s complaint, male sergeants were ordered to inspect female officers daily with respect to their hair, nails, and underclothing. The female officers became the subjects of jokes and “snide comments” during these inspections, the complaints read.

Once the officers began complaining of unfair treatment, they allegedly became the targets of retaliatory action by the chief and command staff. Among the allegations: They were assigned undesirable shifts; denied opportunities for overtime; overloaded with service calls while male officers were allowed to remain at the station; and denied watch command coverage, undercover, and detective training, and even restroom facilities during a four-hour range training session.

The officers also allege their careers were cut short by Annibali’s alleged policy to thwart promotion efforts by female officers, which included redefining policies that rendered male officers—referred to in the complaint as Annibali’s “golden boys”—as eligible for advancement when they previously wouldn’t have qualified, both complaints stated.

“[Annibali] and other high-ranking law enforcement personnel have withheld mentoring, training, and promotional opportunities to female police officers who have dedicated their careers and lives to protecting Arroyo Grande and its citizens,” said Christine Adams, Cota’s Santa Barbara-based attorney.

City officials told New Times that they couldn’t comment on any of the specifics in the lawsuits, citing restraints placed on them by personnel confidentiality regulations. However, a number of defenses were laid out in a December 2010 response written specifically to Martin’s suit, including a claim that it was Martin’s own “carelessness and negligence” that contributed to her injury.

Furthermore, the city argued that Martin failed to follow department procedure for reporting her complaints, and that a two-year statute of limitation may bar Martin from pursuing the “untimely” allegations.

Following Cota’s filing—six days after a New Times article made Martin’s lawsuit public—City Manager Steve Adams reiterated the city’s support for Annibali and said Cota is currently on administrative leave pending the results of an investigation into violations of city personnel regulations and policies.

“As with the other case, we believe there is no merit to these allegations, and the City will aggressively defend this lawsuit,” Adams wrote to New Times.

“Since Chief Annibali was hired in 2007, he has worked hard to increase accountability in order to provide the most efficient and effective public safety services possible. Unfortunately, in the public personnel system under which we operate, litigation is all too often a strategic repercussion of such efforts,” Adams wrote.

Adams said that in the past 10 years, investigations into two separate sexual harassment claims within the department led to the dismissal of one employee and had another facing disciplinary action when he voluntarily ended his employment.

Annibali wouldn’t talk specifics with New Times, but did issue a statement.

“The Arroyo Grande Police Department maintains the highest standards of professionalism and fairness in everything we do,” he wrote. “The public expects integrity from its police, and I intend to honor this trust by having the administrative courage to hold people accountable.”

City Manager Adams said most officers have responded to Annibali’s policies positively.

In a story where officials have to stand silent behind employee confidentiality, some locals were surprised when the city revealed that Martin and Cota were both tied to investigations for job-related misconduct.

But the specifics of those investigations are being closely guarded as well; the District Attorney’s Office wouldn’t return repeated requests for verification of any investigation into Martin or Cota.

New Times asked City Manager Adams why the existence of the investigations was disclosed, since, according to Martin’s complaint, the D.A’s investigation into her concluded in February 2010 and no charges were filed.

“… Disclosure of the existence of an investigation into an employee’s conduct by another agency does not constitute the release of confidential personnel information,” Adams wrote in an e-mail to New Times.

Martin’s Calabasas-based attorney, Kevin Boyle, didn’t return repeated requests for comment, but Martin’s complaint lists misuse of a work fax machine and misrepresentation on unrelated child custody papers as reason for the DA’s investigation, allegations Martin denies.

Cota’s attorney Adams wouldn’t discuss any investigation into her client.

And though attorney Adams said she hasn’t yet completed her own investigation, she said her findings indicate other lawsuits may follow.

If another suit is, in fact, on its way, there are very few possibilities when it comes to who would be filing it.

There’s just one other sworn female officer in the department. She couldn’t be reached for comment, however, and her name hasn’t appeared on any court documents.

Both Martin and Cota are seeking monetary damages, which have yet to be determined.

Jay Hieatt, the attorney representing the city in the Martin lawsuit, said Annibali is scheduled to make his first deposition in February 2012.

Should the city fight Cota’s complaint, a response should be forthcoming in the following months. According to court records, a case management conference for Martin’s case is scheduled for April 5, 2012. The first such hearing for Cota’s lawsuit is scheduled for April 25.

Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at mfountain@newtimesslo.com.

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