A former city of Ceres code enforcement unit secretary has filed a federal suit against former Police Sgt. Jason Coley, alleging that he created an unsafe and sexually tainted hostile work environment.
Teresa Aguilar filed suit on Nov. 23 in the U.S. District Court Eastern District demanding a jury trial for Coley’s alleged violations of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and federal workplace protections. Now a Texas resident, Aguilar is seeking $4 million in damages.
Coley left the city earlier this year and no longer lives in the area, the lawsuit said. He was first hired by the city as a police officer in 1998 and worked his way up to sergeant. His last charge was overseeing the city’s Code Enforcement Unit after the departure of Sgt. Joe Wren.
Her attorney, Joshua Watson of Sacramento, said his client was subjected to harassing conduct because she was a woman during her employment from November 2018 to May 1, 2020.
The lawsuit also names Coley’s superiors, Captain Pat Crane, Police Chief Rick Collins and then City Manager Toby Wells, saying they were aware of Coley’s behavior but failed to take corrective action. Crane, the court document said, pretended not to hear Coley’s “harassing conduct because he had something in his ears, thereby making light of and ratifying the harassment.”
Chief Collins declined to comment on the suit or the allegations.
The lawsuit claims “a reasonable woman in plaintiff’s circumstances would have considered the work environment to be hostile, intimidating, offensive, oppressive or abusive.”
Coley is accused of “using plainly offensive language and mannerisms that included, among other things: asking for a ‘massage with a happy ending’” on her first day of work and repeatedly calling her a “bitch” during her employment. According to court documents, Coley uttered crude remarks to Aguilar in front of superiors. She accused Coley of speculating about sex acts she might engage in.
Aguilar cited one instance alleging that Coley “acted in an intentional or wanton manner” in or about January by assaulting resulting in a rotor cuff tear in her shoulder which requires surgery. She said the incident occurred when he required her to go to lunch in his car and that as she had her hand on the door handle that he allowed the car to move to cause her physical harm.
“The hostile work environment was a daily occurrence,” Aguilar stated in her lawsuit. “Some examples of the hostile work environment that Sgt. Coley subjected me to included …. cussing at me, calling me a ‘bitch,’ ‘crazy bitch’ and ‘f-----g bitch,’ throwing things at me, yelling at me and berating me in front of other employees.
Other allegations accuse Coley of:
· Kicking her seat at a work related barbecue in August 2019, causing physical harm.
· Throwing objects and used a loud voice in anger where others could hear.
· Asking Aguilar if she hurt her p---y when she once slipped and fell;
· Telling Aguilar “you better not turn into a conniving c--t” during a discussion about another official’s relationship problems with a woman.
· Randomly stating “I heard you like to eat c--.”
· Giving her a negative personnel evaluation after she complained about his conduct. There had been no prior documented complaints or problems with her performance.
· Asking Aguilar and other employees in November 2019 to help him investigate two citizens who complained publicly at council meeting about the city’s code enforcement efforts which he was overseeing, saying “They are going to be our project.” When Aguilar refused, thinking it was retaliatory in nature, Coley replied: “Are you f------g kidding me? And “F--- it. I’ll do it myself.”
· Imposing last-minute work to jeopardize her ability to take a previously approved vacation or leave.
· Becoming angry or sullen if fellow employees would turn down his requests to go to lunch together.
· Yelling at people through his car’s PA system.
Aguilar said that in January she lodged a complaint about Coley to Aaron Slater, the now former Human Resources director, and was told a third party would be hired to investigate. She said she was ostracized and that at times would hear co-workers say within earshot what a “great guy Jason is.”
After Coley’s office moved – but was still on the same floor as Aguilar’s – she complained she did not feel safe and asked for her office door lock to be changed. That’s when she was told Coley was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. Only after Aguilar resigned on May 1, 2020 did the investigation substantiate her allegations.
During his tenure with the department, Coley served as a patrol officer, motorcycle patrolman, field training officer, detective, sergeant and hostage negotiation team member as well as the department’s historian.
This is not the first time a female employee has filed suit against the city. In 2017 the city settled a lawsuit filed by Carissa Higginbotham and an unnamed employee who said male officers of sexual harassment. Those charges included the use of hidden cell phones and surveillance cameras trying to capture images of body parts. The lawsuit alleged that Ceres Police's internal investigation was not thorough.