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The following article was posted on August 26th, 2014, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 15, Issue 25 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 15, Issue 25

Community Health Centers of the Central Coast is facing two sexual harassment lawsuits from former employees

BY COLIN RIGLEY

The situations described seem almost identical: two women, both receptionists hired within about a year of one another, allege that their respective bosses began sexually harassing them in late 2012.

Both were fired. Both have the same attorney. Both have sued.

Though Santa Barbara-based attorney Christine Adams declined to comment or allow either of her clients to speak further about their lawsuits, court records show that the former employees allege they were sexually harassed and later fired “without notice or warning” (in one instance immediately following her return from disability leave, and in the other during a “medical leave of absence”) from jobs as receptionists for Community Health Centers of the Central Coast (CHC).

With 26 locations throughout San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties, CHC is a nonprofit focused primarily on providing low-cost health care.

In February of this year, Emily Villegas was the first to file a case against her former employer, CHC, as well as office manager Frank Perez. Then in June, Patricia Allen-Andrade filed a similar suit against CHC and her former supervisor, Lorincio “Larry” Bacus.

Villegas was hired in July 2005, and Allen-Andrade was hired in May 2004. Villegas claims that Perez “nearly immediately … began a pattern and practice of sexually harassing” her after he was hired in September 2012. Allen-Andrade claims she was “routinely subjected to sexual harassment” during her last year of employment under Bacus.

Villegas claims Perez engaged in “inappropriate touching, grabbing, lewd comments, sexually explicit comments and gestures.” She further alleges that she had “objected to the conduct and comments” but it didn’t stop.

“Instead, after Perez was rebuffed by [Villegas], he began to aggressively manage [Villegas] and cause her both physical and mental harm,” her lawsuit claims.

Allen-Andrade alleges that Bacus “made sexually inappropriate comments … touched her about the neck and shoulder area despite her objection and consistently told her he’d make her life ‘easy’ at work if she didn’t say anything to anyone about his conduct.” Specifically, Allen-Andrade claims Bacus often made comments such as “you know I want you,” “I’m always thinking of being with you,” and “why did you have to get married?” She claims he referred to her as “honey,” “sweetie,” and “gorgeous,” and asked her to breakfast on one occasion, then described “a series of favors he was planning on doing for her, if she would be ‘his girl.’”

Both women claim they lodged complaints with CHC administrators. Villegas, for example, said she filed a complaint in December 2012, then went on medical leave “due to extraordinary stress and anxiety she was experiencing at work,” and was fired in June 2013 while she was still out on leave. Allen-Andrade claims she sent an email to CHC’s human resources department, but “began to feel that she was suffering from backlash from her employer” and “given the cold shoulder and transferred to another clinic.” She was later fired without notice, according to court documents.

Neither Perez nor Bacus responded to the Sun’s phone or email requests for comment.

It’s not the first time Bacus’ name has appeared in court documents while he was employed with CHC. In 2009, Bacus pleaded no contest to grand theft, agreeing to a sentence of two years probation and $10,000 in restitution payments. He was charged with felony embezzlement earlier that year, stemming from allegations that he embezzled $13,476 from Visión Unida while he was working with the group in 2005.

CHC Spokesman Steve Mahr wouldn’t comment on pending litigation, but said that new hires are provided sexual harassment training. Asked how complaints are handled within CHC, Mahr said they’d be directed to the organization’s human resources department “and any grievance is taken seriously and investigated.”

“Certainly as part of all employee training for new hires, sexual harassment training is part of that,” Mahr added.

In both cases, CHC’s Fresno-based attorneys Ryan Eddings, Elisabeth Tietjen, and Littler Mendelson responded with separate general denials of the complaints. In each case, they fired back with more than 25 affirmative defenses, including a general denial of all the allegations and claims that each plaintiff “failed to exercise reasonable and ordinary care, caution or prudence and that the alleged injuries and damages, if any, were proximately caused and/or contributed to by Plaintiff’s own negligence and/or intentional conduct.”

 CHC further affirmed that it provides appropriate training for employees, and distanced itself in court documents from any inappropriate behavior, but without confirming that any such behavior occurred. CHC also argued that Villegas and Allen-Andrade failed to exhaust the organization’s internal “administrative remedies,” and if any inappropriate behavior took place, it was “not authorized, ratified by or condoned by Defendant.”

In both cases, CHC argued to compel binding arbitration. However, in Villegas’ case, SLO County Superior Court Judge Barry LaBarbera ruled against CHC’s motion to do so. A similar motion hadn’t been filed in the Allen-Andrade case as of press time.

Villegas’ case is scheduled for a case management conference Sept. 22; Allen-Andrade’s case is scheduled for a case management conference Oct. 21.

 

Senior Staff Writer Colin Rigley of the Sun’s sister paper to the north can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.