July 29th, 2016
Sac Bee: Former Folsom prison Dental Assistant Awarded $1.1 million
By Darrell Smith, Sacramento Bee, July 28, 2016
with WBI commentary inserted
Sacramento jurors, in a $1.1 million verdict Wednesday, sided with a state corrections employee who claimed her higher-ups did little or nothing to protect her from threats made by one of her subordinates, then retaliated against her when she complained of the threatening treatment.
The threat was a death threat, of bringing a gun to work, not a minor act.
Jurors awarded Onalis Giunta, a supervising dental assistant at Folsom State Prison when she filed the 2012 lawsuit against California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, $990,000 for noneconomic losses and mental suffering along with another $107,000 in past and future earnings, in their verdict, court documents showed.
It was not known Thursday whether there were plans to appeal the verdict.
Giunta in the lawsuit characterized the man identified in court documents as Serge Protsyuk, as a problem employee who often ran afoul of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation rules and regulations.
Protsyuk was a former coworker of the newly promoted supervisor, Giunta. He never respected her authority and was coddled by two male supervisors of hers who undermined her role. He aggressively disobeyed rules that he felt did not apply to him, daring her to discipline him.
Giunta alleged that the employee threatened to bring a gun to work after disciplinary action in November 2010. Protsyuk followed the alleged gun threat with months of more intimidation, the lawsuit alleged, forcing Giunta to take a yearlong, doctor-ordered stress leave.
Yes, you read that correctly. After he threatened revenge on her for an unfavorable evaluation by bringing a gun to work, the warden and security staff who had been told of the threat that night planned to search him the next morning when Protsyuk arrived for work. NO ONE ever called Giunta that night to warn her of the threat made against her. Protsyuk was frisked the next morning and allowed to go work as usual. Giunta was told about the threat AFTER she saw Protsyuk walk past her office window! No suspension. No punishment. And Giunta had to work with him for another six months without his removal.
Giunta was traumatized. All the while, the warden had decided that no violation of the strict zero-tolerance Violence Prevention Policy had occurred. No investigation of Giunta’s complaint about the violation was undertaken.
Giunta, in the suit, described a February 2011 incident in which Giunta found flowers on her car after Protsyuk had asked what car she drove.
As an expert witness in this case, I described the original threat and subsequent 6 months of unremitting exposure to Protsyuk had compromised Giunta’s “psychological safety” which led to severe health harm, confirmed by another expert witness.
“I don’t feel safe, you know, driving home in my car right now because I don’t know if something was done to my car,” Giunta is quoted as saying in a deposition detailed in the court documents.
The threats to her psychological safety compounded over time. His stalking behavior is specifically considered a violation of the Violence policy. No negative consequences came to Protsyuk beyond a simple “letter of reprimand.”
Giunta attorneys Lawrance Bohm and Robert Boucher of Sacramento argued in the briefs that Giunta took her concerns to state corrections supervisors including the prison’s warden, before going to the Governor’s Office.
Few plaintiffs’ attorneys are as successful as those at the Bohm Law Group. See their record.
Giunta’s attorneys contended corrections officials did nothing to prevent the behavior, painting corrections bureaucracy as “fickle and self-serving,” and deriding its workplace violence policy as “impotent.”
Giunta had trusted the CDCR to take seriously its own Violence policy to protect employees working at a state prison! In this case, the inmates weren’t the source of Giunta’s danger; it was a subordinate. It turns out that Warden Rick Hill neutralized the policy by unilaterally deciding no violation had occurred. From that decision, made the morning that Protsyuk was found to not have brought a weapon to work the morning after the threat, the entire organization fell in line and denied Giunta the protection she deserved. As she continued to request, then demand, accountability, it became management’s goal to remove Giunta instead of Protsyuk.
Instead, Giunta’s attorneys said once Giunta returned from leave in 2012 she was told she must either return to work with Protsyuk, resign or find another job.
She was ultimately assigned to a posting in Vacaville, before taking a voluntary demotion to transfer to a facility in Elk Grove.
And it was an involuntary, punitive move made without Giunta’s awareness. Simultaneously, Protsyuk was granted an open-ended leave of absence with the promise of a job upon return.
Attorneys from the state attorney general’s office representing Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation denied the suit’s claims, saying officials investigated and disciplined the offending employee.
Corrections officials maintained Giunta was never unsafe at Folsom, that she showed no evidence that she was harassed and intimidated after the employee’s original comment and that Giunta was offered a transfer back to Folsom, but declined once she learned that she would work again with the employee.
The arguments didn’t satisfy jurors. After weeks of trial, jurors decided Giunta was a victim of adverse employment action and that telling her superiors about the employee’s threats contributed to her transfer to Vacaville. The panel also decided the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s conduct was a “substantial factor” in causing Giunta harm.
Giunta attorney Bohm said the verdict sends a strong signal to employers to take workplace intimidation – and the policies drawn to prevent it – seriously.
“You can’t ignore workplace policies. You can’t minimize workplace violence,” Bohm said Wednesday. “By minimizing Ms. Giunta, you maximize her harm.”
Policies without faithful enforcement ring hollow. They are not worth the paper they are written on. Policies must be living documents, incorporated into daily workplace routines and adopted by managers without cynicism.
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