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O.C. Tab for Harassment Settlements to Top $1 Million

Courts: County already has paid $914,000 to end two of five suits against former assistant sheriff. LaDucer goes on record for first time.

July 15, 1999|DANIEL YI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In what is becoming the most expensive case of its kind in county government history, taxpayers have spent nearly $1 million in settlements and legal bills involving sexual harassment charges leveled against a former assistant sheriff.

The county has settled two of the five harassment suits filed by female Sheriff's Department employees against Dennis LaDucer and paid out a total of $914,906, according to financial records obtained Wednesday under the California Public Records Act. A third settlement is now in the works that is expected to push the tab well above the $1 million mark.

LaDucer, 53, is accused of making inappropriate comments to a sheriff's lieutenant as well as groping her and other female department employees. He was eventually fired after an internal investigation.

Until now, LaDucer has made no public comments about the case other than to issue denials through his attorneys. But last month, LaDucer briefly testified in open court about some of the allegations before the case was halted for settlement discussions.

In his testimony, which until now has not been publicized, LaDucer said he didn't believe his actions violated the county's policy on sexual harassment and did not consider them inappropriate.

Under questioning by an attorney representing Mary Ann Hoyt, a sheriff's clerk who accused LaDucer of making suggestive remarks and touching her, the former high-ranking lawman said his actions were more playful than sexual.

"I think I have in the past said something like, 'Don't make me lick your ankles like a puppy dog,'," LaDucer said. " . . . It seemed at the time that I said it, that it was appropriate."

LaDucer explained that he made the comment as a humorous way of asking employees to follow his instructions.

He said that he sometimes did discuss sexual subjects with subordinates but that such banter is common at the Sheriff's Department and that he did not believe it offended anyone.

It "still occurs today in the Sheriff's Department, that people talk about sex," LaDucer said.

Hoyt was one of four employees with the Sheriff's Department who sued both the county and LaDucer. Two of the plaintiffs, Lt. Wendy Costello and Deputy Florence Jean Henson, settled their cases with the county earlier this year for $310,000 and $367,577 respectively. They no longer work at the department.

Hoyt's case went to trial on June 15. But after one day of testimony, attorneys decided to settle the case. A final deal is expected soon, and the financial settlement is likely to be similar to the earlier cases.

Two lawsuits are still pending. One involves an unnamed woman who accused LaDucer of sexually assaulting her at his home in 1995. The other was filed last year by Amy L. Maisenbach, 25, who accused LaDucer and other Sheriff's Department employees of badgering her with sexually suggestive comments.

LaDucer has filed lawsuits of his own in federal and local courts against the Sheriff's Department accusing the agency of unfairly firing him. The federal case was dismissed, and the local suit is still pending.

In addition to the settlements, the county has spent nearly $237,000 so far on various attorneys fees.

Legal experts said it's common for parties to settle sexual harassment suits and avoid having embarrassing issues vented in open court.

"It is a cost-and-benefit analysis," said USC law professor Susan Estrich, an author and expert in sexual harassment. "The chances of losses are greater for both sides if they go to trial."

The LaDucer settlements come at a time when county supervisors are raising concerns about the way the county deals with sensitive litigation.

County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who last month requested a review of the county's lawsuit settlement policy, said Wednesday he is alarmed about the amounts being awarded in some out-of-court deals.

Currently, most settlements do not require approval by the Board of Supervisors and are handled by county staffers. But Spitzer has called for more oversight by the board on big-money settlements.

"I don't know one fact. I don't have one stitch of evidence in my position on anything to do with LaDucer," Spitzer said. "It is not fair to the taxpaying constituents to think, falsely, that the Board of Supervisors is guarding and overseeing their tax dollars when in fact millions of dollars are being spent without our oversight or permission."

Without board oversight, he added, elected officials cannot be assured that safeguards are being taken to prevent future lawsuits.

LaDucer's case is one of only a few sexual harassment lawsuits filed against the county in recent years and only the second one in decade to result in payments to a plaintiff.

In 1996, a Sheriff's Department jail employee won a $480,000 judgment after a jury found that three male co-workers in the Central Men's Jail had subjected her to constant verbal and physical harassment. The award was later lowered to $273,948, according to the county's risk management office.

A few months after allegations were leveled against LaDucer, the county announced it was beefing up sexual-harassment awareness training for employees.

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