The town of Atherton paid $230,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former police officer.
News of the settlement came from attorney-rating Web site Avvo.com, where John Bonagofsky, the attorney for officer Pilar Ortiz-Buckley, posted information about the settlement deal. He told The Almanac that an agreement with the town was reached in late October.
The settlement was finalized Nov. 19, according to Wynne Furth, the Atherton city attorney.
Ms. Ortiz-Buckley, who is now retired from the Atherton Police Department, charged that public works supervisor Troy Henderson subjected her to ongoing sexual harassment. She filed a lawsuit against Mr. Henderson and the town in April, alleging that Mr. Henderson's supervisors did nothing to curb Mr. Henderson's behavior, and that when she complained, she faced retaliation and was forced out of the police department.
The lawsuit was set to go to trial next April. Mr. Bonagofsky said the town agreed to settle the case before depositions were even taken.
"It's unusual. If you don't settle right after the case is filed, you usually don't settle until after the depositions," he said. "I think they wanted to avoid attorney's fees and they knew they would be on the hook for something at trial, so what they did was make a business decision and put a number on what that was worth. It turns out we agreed on the number."
Ms. Furth said the town and Mr. Henderson agreed to the comprehensive settlement.
"Litigation is expensive, litigation is difficult. It's not simply the financial cost to the city, it's depositions and trials, and it takes people away from their work," she told The Almanac. "We're glad we were able to resolve this case and the city can put it behind it."
The case was on a City Council closed session agenda in October, but no reportable action occurred, said Ms. Furth. When asked if the council voted in closed session to approve the settlement, she reiterated that no reportable action occurred at the meeting.
Information about the settlement is available from Atherton town hall upon request, she said.
"It's a personnel matter, and we generally do not announce personnel matters," Ms. Furth said. "We follow state law, and the Brown Act says that when a settlement becomes final, the terms shall be released upon inquiry."
Since there was no council action, and information about the settlement was not updated on the San Mateo County Superior Court's Web site, it's unclear how anyone would have known to ask about the settlement.
Mayor Jerry Carlson said that the council was instructed by Ms. Furth not to discuss the settlement until it was finalized, and even he hadn't known when that occurred.
In hindsight, the town should have foreseen the need to issue a press release and inform the public, rather than reacting to the disclosure, Mr. Carlson told The Almanac.
"It's a significant amount of money we're talking about, and we need to discuss how to handle it so it (doesn't appear to be) an under-the-table transaction type of thing, because it's not. It's certainly subject to public disclosure after it's done," said Mr. Carlson. "I need to have that discussion with the attorney."
Mr. Carlson vowed to work on a more proactive approach to informing residents. "The town should be forthcoming once the thing is finalized," he said.
Mr. Henderson, who still works for the town, stood trial this summer for misdemeanor criminal charges of assault and battery against Ms. Ortiz-Buckley. He was found not guilty by a jury in July.
The criminal charges stemmed from a June 3, 2008, incident caught on videotape in which then-Officer Ortiz-Buckley was sitting in the police station staff room when she said she was threatened by Mr. Henderson, who then lunged at her, according to Steve Wagstaffe, the chief deputy district attorney of San Mateo County.
During the trial, several other female Atherton employees testified about sexual harassment they had allegedly suffered from Mr. Henderson. Mr. Henderson's defense attorney countered by alleging that it was all a set-up by Ms. Ortiz-Buckley, who was looking to cash in at Mr. Henderson's expense.