Almanac

News - June 3, 2009

Police officer sues town, public works supervisor over assault, harassment claims

by Andrea Gemmet

Atherton's public works supervisor, who's been with the town for 33 years, is facing a criminal trial on misdemeanor charges of assault and battery on an Atherton police officer. He's also named in a civil lawsuit the officer filed.

In a June 3, 2008, incident caught on videotape, Officer Pilar Ortiz-Buckley was sitting in the police station staff room when she was threatened by public works supervisor Troy Henderson, who then lunged at her, according to Steve Wagstaffe, the chief deputy district attorney of San Mateo County.

The alleged assault exacerbated Officer Ortiz-Buckley's existing work-related injury and caused a new one, according to her complaint.

The criminal case is set to go to trial on June 22.

In her lawsuit against the town of Atherton and Mr. Henderson, filed April 29, Officer Ortiz-Buckley alleges that she suffered ongoing sexual harassment from Mr. Henderson, and that once she reported the incident, she faced retaliation and disability discrimination related to the injury she suffered.

Mr. Henderson referred all comments to his attorney, Jacklyn A. Bentley, who is representing him in the criminal case.

"This is tearing me apart, tearing my family apart," he told The Almanac.

"Mr. Henderson firmly maintains his innocence in the matter, as he has from the very beginning," said Ms. Bentley in an e-mail to The Almanac. "The case is currently set for a jury trial, where Mr. Henderson believes his side of the story will become known and prevail."

Ms. Bentley said she was unable to comment further on the case.

Atherton City Attorney Wynne Furth said she could not comment on pending litigation, and said the town has not yet responded to the complaint.

According to Officer Ortiz-Buckley's lawsuit, Mr. Henderson, 58, has a long history of sexually harassing female town employees, stretching back at least 15 of the 33 years that he has worked for Atherton. At least three formal complaints were made against Mr. Henderson over the years, and his behavior is well known to everyone in town hall, she claims in her lawsuit.

The town's only response to the sexual harassment complaints has been to issue reprimands and require Mr. Henderson to take sensitivity training, she said in her complaint.

"It's a slap on the wrist," said John Scott Bonagofsky, Officer Ortiz-Buckley's attorney.

Caught on video

According to Officer Ortiz-Buckley's account of the June 3 incident, Mr. Henderson followed her into the police station staff room while leering at her and making verbal sexual advances.

"Henderson followed Officer Ortiz down the hallway, and as he often did, began making sexual comments towards Officer Ortiz about her needing a man like him to 'quench her fires,' and telling Officer Ortiz what he would do to her if she went out with him," the lawsuit says. "As she typically did in these circumstances, Officer Ortiz told Henderson she was not interested."

Mr. Henderson allegedly continued making sexual remarks, and when he got inappropriately close to her, she warned him to get out of her space, she claims in the lawsuit.

"Suddenly, Henderson lunged at Officer Ortiz and grabbed her, and Officer Ortiz was forced to defend herself from the much larger man," the complaint states. Another officer then walked into the room, defusing the situation, the lawsuit says.

The next day, Officer Ortiz-Buckley asked to see the security camera video, and was told by Jeanne Enberg, the police department's communications manager, that the incident needed to be reported to then-Chief Bob Brennan. The police department referred the investigation of the incident to the county District Attorney's Office.

"It's all on video," said Mr. Wagstaffe. "We've been talking to other (Atherton) employees with similar situations."

Officer Ortiz-Buckley's lawsuit also claims that Assistant City Manager Eileen Wilkerson told Ms. Enberg to "get rid" of the video. Ms. Wilkerson disputed that allegation to an investigator for the DA's office, saying she asked Ms. Enberg to remove the video from her desktop.

Restraining order

A stay-away order prepared by Chief Brennan was given to City Manager Jerry Gruber, but was never served on Mr. Henderson, the lawsuit claims.

Officer Ortiz-Buckley later was granted a three-year restraining order against Mr. Henderson in county Superior Court, requiring him to stay five yards away from her, and to stay away from her home and her children's school.

Disability claim

When the incident occurred, Officer Ortiz-Buckley was working part-time while recovering from a back injury stemming from an April 2007 training exercise. After the altercation with Mr. Henderson, her back injury worsened, and a new injury to her neck was diagnosed, leaving her unable to work, she said in her complaint.

After physical therapy, she returned to work on limited duty at the end of November 2008. Her lawsuit claims that town officials did not try to accommodate her by offering her alternate open positions in the police department.

Officer Ortiz-Buckley's doctor cleared her to return to work, but with a weight-limitation that prevents her from wearing the 35-pound gun belt that's part of a patrol officer's uniform.

Instead, Officer Ortiz-Buckley claims she was told to retire from the police department. She's been on administrative leave since January, after using up all her vacation time, her attorney said.

She was hired by the Atherton Police Department as an officer in 2000, and worked for two years as a school resource officer and juvenile detective, and then returned to patrol duty. Prior to that, she worked as a police dispatcher and was promoted to communications manager.

Officer Ortiz-Buckley is "an excellent police officer," her attorney, Mr. Bonagofsky, told The Almanac. "The people she works with like her. Everything was fine until she reported Troy, and all of a sudden, they tried to get rid of her."

Officer Ortiz-Buckley's workers compensation claim was denied by a claims adjuster who said that she, not Mr. Henderson, was the "initial aggressor" in the incident.

"You can see on the video that he lunges at her, she puts a police hold on him to get him off of her, and somehow, she's the aggressor," said Mr. Bonagofsky. "That's what the legal argument is, but I don't think anyone who sees the video would believe that."

Officer Ortiz-Buckley claims she suffered additional retaliation at work, saying the town filled a communications manager position and a detective position without offering them to her, even though it was legally required to do so.

Police Chief Glenn Nielsen said he was unable to comment on pending litigation.

Officer Ortiz-Buckley said she was also excluded from town staff events because of her restraining order against Mr. Henderson, according to her complaint.

Her lawsuit states that when then-Chief Brennan asked City Manager Gruber whether Mr. Henderson was told to stay away from a staff party, Mr. Gruber told him no, "because Henderson was black and over 50 (years old)."

Officer Ortiz-Buckley claims she was intentionally left off the invitation list for the town staff's 2008 holiday barbecue.

"Ms. Wilkerson informed Officer Ortiz that Henderson was cooking at the barbecue and this is why Officer Ortiz had not been invited," she said in her complaint. "(She) told Ms. Wilkerson that she was shocked that Atherton was treating her this way. ... Atherton's response to Officer Ortiz's complaint in this regard was to cancel the holiday barbecue."

Comments

Posted by bob murray, a resident of another community
on Jun 2, 2009 at 10:44 pm

Gruber is toast. It is time to start a search for a new city manager.


Posted by Fiscally responsible, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jun 2, 2009 at 11:09 pm

I have a couple of net takeaways and questions from this well-written article:

Question: Is Mr. Henderson being prosecuted for assault, or the more serious charge of assaulting a police officer?

Comments:

1. I am morbidly curious to see what Atherton's response to this lawsuit will be. On the face of it, it seems truly incredible that they have let the situation degenerate to this point.

2. Mr. Gruber had a harassment complaint made against him at his former town manager position at Big Bear Lake. He was suspended and during that suspension quit to take the Atherton job. This was reported at the time by the Almanac, so I'm not quite sure why comments that discuss it now are getting deleted.

At the time, the Almanac reported Mr. Gruber's own retort to this charge: "I think the (Atherton) council feels really comfortable that it was a whole lot about nothing," he said. "My recommendations are impeccable. I come highly recommended, and I think the (Big Bear Lake) community is really going to miss (my wife) Melanie and I [sic]."

At the time I thought that perhaps Atherton was taking a bit of a chance given its history of enormous legal and staff turmoil. My own predilection, had I been on the council, would have been to err on the side of hiring someone -- even if it involved paying a premium salary (yes, he's paid well under the Menlo Park manager) -- with an absolutely sterling record, because given Atherton's particular problems, that would actually save money in the long run even with the higher salary.

3. For the record -- I am NOT John Johns. I have read his postings here (at least before they get deleted), as well as the Almanac's stories about him. If his behavior warranted being fired for creating a hostile work environment, what the heck has Mr. Henderson done?


Posted by Bill Avery, a resident of another community
on Jun 3, 2009 at 8:18 am

Glenn Nielsen is toast. It is time to search for a new police chief.

Perhaps this time they will look beyond the confines of Atherton.


Posted by muckraker, a resident of Atherton: other
on Jun 3, 2009 at 8:50 am

According to a redacted copy of the Topliff report (available at on the Almanac News site at the following link

Web Link )

Johns complained to Wende Protzman about an instance of possible sexual harassment.

The individual who was the subject of the allegation suggested Mr. Johns had issues with him because of his size and because of his race. (See Page 11)

Ms. Topliff concluded that Mr. Johns did not find what she referred to as any "overt" racial issue at play but did find fault with Mr. Johns for raising the issue.

It would seem to me that if the subject of Mr. Johns sexual harassment complaint and the subject of Pilar Ortiz Buckley's sexual harassment complaint are one and the same, the Town is going to have hell to pay.



Posted by DonD, a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jun 3, 2009 at 1:12 pm

[Post removed]


Posted by Sugar Ray, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jun 3, 2009 at 4:00 pm

[Post removed]


Posted by unreal, a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Jun 3, 2009 at 4:04 pm

How many false disability actions does the town have to go through to learn from it...remember the female dispatcher who was convicted of felony workmen's comp fraud? How much did that cost the town? How many lawsuits does the town have to endure and lose before they learn? Remember all the lawsuits former chief cader brought about? How much did all those cost the taxpayers? Now this? Stop this madness...get the Sheriff in here to take over services. Remember the police officer who STOLE a residents golf clubs? Now there is yet another one being investigated for a potential felony. Ask and you will not get any answers as it is being covered up by the administration. Enough of this! This is an unprofessional agency run by an unprofessional administration from the City Manager down to the Chief of Police!


Posted by Ivana Massage, a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge
on Jun 3, 2009 at 4:52 pm

Yes, thank goodness the Sheriff's office is free from the taint of scandal.


Posted by Fiscally responsible, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jun 3, 2009 at 5:13 pm

Of course it's not, Ivana, but it's way better than Atherton. Just look at the lawsuits.


Posted by Unbelievable, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jun 3, 2009 at 5:25 pm

Someone explain something to me. This isn't the first or even the second time that Henderson was reported for sexual harassment, and yet he still works there? Huh?


Posted by Explanation, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 3, 2009 at 7:15 pm

That question by Unbelievable is probably the most interesting aspect of this story.

I am as much against "political correctness" as anyone, and am opposed to men being charged with sexual harassment for asking a woman out on a date, etc. If Atherton were opposing Ms. Ortiz' suit on these types of principles, I would be the first to stand behind Mr. Gruber and support him. However, between the video tape, restraining order, and criminal prosecution, this seems really far removed from those types of situations.

One thought that occurred to me (and apparently someone else on this board) is that Atherton feels Ms. Ortiz is attempting to game the system with her disability claim. Then again, even if that were true, how would that excuse Mr. Henderson's conduct?

Another thought is perhaps Mr. Gruber's alleged comment about Mr. Henderson being over 50 and African American is part of a lesser of two evils decision made by him that either way Atherton was going to get sued over this, and he chose the suit by the African American man as being more dangerous than the one by the Hispanic woman. Hmmm. I think the tape and criminal prosecution trump that notion no matter how you think that particular rock and hard place would unfold.

The more logical (and disturbing) explanation is that, yet again, Atherton is deciding to advance a policy of denying any wrongdoing, irrespective of the facts. I believe the city attorneys are only too glad to advocate this type of strategy, as it leads to increased billable hours for them. John F. Kennedy said "An error doesn't become a mistake until you fail to correct it." Mr. Gruber would do well to study this quote. But then again, he's not paying for these suits. Nor are the council members who approve them (by denying the liability claims). It can all get blamed on the previous city attorney, city manager and police chief, can't it?


Posted by Disbelief, a resident of another community
on Jun 3, 2009 at 9:01 pm

I believe someone is innocent until proven guilty. However, an employee with a history of "worker's comp injuries" loses credibiity. If this is a criminal act, why the lawsuit? Sounds like she wants some $$$$$$


Posted by Quentin McHale, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jun 3, 2009 at 9:25 pm

Don't tar (or toast) Chief Glenn Nielsen with this muck. This is one guy who is really working hard to provide the services that Atherton needs and eliminate the extaneous noise we don't need. This guy is the best chief Atherton has had in 25 years.

Sheriff's Dept? A fine crew of officers, but wouldn't provide the level of service we've come to rely on in Atherton.


Posted by Fiscally responsible, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jun 3, 2009 at 9:29 pm

No doubt about it, but criminal proceedings and civil proceedings are not mutually exclusive. If a drunk driver, heaven forbid, maims you, s/he would be criminally prosecuted for drunk driving, but you would also most likely be seeking monetary restitution via civil litigation from the insurance company for the loss of your income, lifestyle, etc. "Explanation" has it right. Even if Ofc. Ortiz is "gaming the system", how can that excuse the alleged conduct of Mr. Henderson? Why would the Town of Atherton management not act decisively to cut off the damages that I'm sure will flow from this? It's either incompetence or misconduct.


Posted by ru kidding, a resident of Atherton: other
on Jun 3, 2009 at 10:52 pm

There have been multiple [portion removed] complaints filed against Troy [portion removed] This time there is a video as per the District Attorney. The claim also states that the Assistant City Manager Eileen Wilkerson asked to have the tape destroyed. This is a true statement as was witnessed by other Police personnel. So who should we believe? [portion removed] Jury trial is June 22nd. Instead of wondering or speculating, why not go to the trial and see for yourself who the real Liars are.


Posted by muckraker, a resident of Atherton: other
on Jun 4, 2009 at 7:58 am

[Post removed; comment identical to earlier post]


Posted by sage, a resident of Atherton: other
on Jun 4, 2009 at 8:37 am

Here is some free advice to Mayor Carlson and his colleagues on the Council:

Fire the City Manager
Fire the Assistant City Manager
Fire the Chief of Police
Fire the Public Works Director
Fire the Public Works Supervisor
Make Buckley a detective
Issue an apology to Buckley

In short use the current crisis to clean house.

Will the Council take this advice? If past experience is indicative of future behavior the answer is a resounding no. But one can always hope for a change of heart and some clear thinking.



Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.