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Agency Sued in Racial Harassment

Courts: The action by two Las Virgenes Water District employees comes on the heels of other discrimination complaints.

January 27, 1996|FRANK MANNING | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CALABASAS — Two minority employees of the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District have filed a lawsuit against the agency, alleging that they were subjected for at least three years to racial discrimination and harassment by co-workers and supervisors.

The suit comes just months after the district paid $62,500 in an out-of-court settlement to a former female district employee who claimed that she had been subjected to gender-based harassment.

The suit, filed Jan. 2 in Los Angeles Superior Court, names the water district, its general manager, James Colbaugh, and seven other current and former district employees. Named are former employees John Bressan, Steve Witbeck, Kelly Polk, Dan Thaxton and Clifford Tobias, and two current employees, Dave Kaschalk and Steve Reck.

Most of the defendants at one time or another served as the plaintiffs' supervisors, according to the suit.

Leon Holiday, an African American man, and Jonathan Vo, a Vietnamese man, allege that they were discriminated against and subjected to racial slurs and are seeking a total of $335,000 in damages, Lee Feldman, their attorney, said. Feldman said he had presented an offer to settle to the district on Jan. 19, giving the district 30 days to respond.

A similar matter was settled out of court in May involving Donna Lee Wright, a waste water management plant operator at the district, said Feldman, who was also her attorney. She quit her job at the district in June, he said.

The district admits some wrongdoing in the case of Holiday, a supervisor at the agency's composting facility, but not Vo, Wayne Lemieux, an attorney for the water district, said. Vo also works at the composting facility. Feldman said he alerted the water agency in either August or September of Holiday's allegations. About the same time, Feldman said, Vo began the process of legal action against the district charging similar discrimination and harassment.

After Holiday's allegations were reported, the district hired a consultant to investigate the charges, in compliance with the state Fair Employment and Housing Act, Feldman said. The consultant, Feldman said, found that there were grounds for Holiday's complaints of discrimination and harassment. The probe did not focus on Vo, Feldman said, although he made his allegations before the investigations began and was interviewed during the probe.

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Lemieux disagreed, saying Vo's complaints were made after the probe of Holiday's complaints had been lodged with the agency. That is why, Lemieux said, the investigation did not include Vo's charges.

Following the investigation, the consultant, Donna Bertain of Chico-based Bertain & Associates, recommended that the district institute more employee training to prevent similar incidents from recurring, Lemieux said. He added that the district has begun to implement Bertain's recommendations.

"We've had a lot of harassment training at the district, a lot of it," he said. "The board of directors is more than a little upset that some of these people didn't get the message. We'll have to haul all the people back in to do more training."

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