Three dispatchers for the Lake County Colorado Sheriff’s Office will share an $875,000 settlement in a lawsuit in which they alleged they were sexually harassed by the former sheriff, Rodney Fenske, and undersheriff, Fernando Mendoza. Their lawsuit not only brought down their harassers but prompted a sea change in the way the department is run.
The three dispatchers, Maria Chavez, Chelsa Parsons, and Nicole Garner, worked on their own as dispatchers in separate shifts. This made them easily targeted by Mendoza and Fenske since there were no witnesses to the behavior, and it came down to a he said/she said situation. For a long time, each dispatcher thought she was the only one subject to the harassment, which made them all feel no one would believe them against the sheriff or undersheriff.
In the lawsuit, the women state that Mendoza spoke about having sex with them, made comments about their bodies, inquired about what they liked to do in bed, and also reached down into their shirts, tickled them, and smelled their hair.
Garner later said the experience was very scary. Not only were the women intimidated, but because they were isolated, they felt quite unsafe.
In late 2017, all three women quit their jobs, although Chavez was rehired and now back at work.
The Third-Party Investigation
The dispatcher’s complaints caused the sheriff’s office to start an internal investigation. Among its conclusions was that the men behaved inappropriately, but that behavior did not formally consist of sexual harassment. However, Mendoza was fired once the investigation was completed.
After the decision that the men’s actions did not reach the level of sexual harassment, the dispatchers went public their allegations in late 2017. They filed the lawsuit in 2018.
The third-party investigation launched by the sheriff’s office found that Fenske had also committed sexual harassment, including discussing his sex life and “conquests.” However, when the investigator’s report reached the Lake County Board of Commissioners, this information was not included in the report. The facts were not revealed under the women filed their lawsuit, so somewhere along the line, a decision was made to remove this material.
While the attorney for the dispatchers was not able to prove who removed the information about Fenske, she said the report, paid for by taxpayers, was “tampered with.” She notes the commissioners would never have learned about Fenske’s inappropriate comments had the dispatchers not filed their suit.
Accused of Abusing Stepdaughter
Mendoza was accused of abusing his stepdaughter in December 2017. The girl notified authorities after reading press accounts of her stepfather’s alleged actions toward the dispatchers. In 2019, Mendoza was convicted and is now serving a 15-month prison sentence.
Besides the settlement, the dispatcher’s allegations changed the nature of the county sheriff’s office. Mendoza is behind bars, while Fenske did not run for reelection in 2018. The new sheriff is Amy Reyes, who campaigned on a platform of getting rid of the good old boy network so pervasive in the department. The dispatchers all said they have confidence in Reyes.
Do you think you were harassed at work or by a co-worker? Visit our workplace harassment FAQ page for more information. Ready to see if you have a case? Contact us online or by phone at 877.858.8018. All inquiries are protected by the attorney-client privilege and kept CONFIDENTIAL. (There is never a fee for a consultation.)