Second A.G. officer files lawsuit

Officer Michelle Cota says she was sexually harassed at Arroyo Grande Police Department; another female officer alleged similar mistreatment in September 2010

acornejo@thetribunenews.comDecember 29, 2011 

A second lawsuit by a female police officer alleging sexual harassment has been filed against the Arroyo Grande Police Department.

Police officer Michelle Cota filed the complaint in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on Dec. 22 against the police department, Police Chief Steve Annibali and Cmdr. John Hough alleging that she was discriminated against and sexually harassed, and that her complaints instigated additional mistreatment.

A civil lawsuit represents one side of a dispute.

It was not clear Thursday whether Cota has been placed on administrative leave. City officials could not be reached for comment.

Cota, who has worked for the Arroyo Grande Police Department since 2003, claims that opportunities to advance her career ended when Annibali joined the department as police chief in 2007.

The lawsuit, filed by Santa Barbara attorney Christine Adams, claims that Annibali “implemented a plan and process to systematically remove department employees and thwart promotion efforts by and advancement opportunities for female officers.”

The claim also alleges specific policies were enacted against female officers, such as prohibiting the three female officers from displaying photos or other personal items on the outside of their lockers, while male officers were not made to follow the same policy.

“The department and Annibali’s harassment of and discrimination and retaliation against (Cota) has been severe, relentless and unending,” states the claim. “(Cota) is a decorated officer who once had a very promising career. Her efforts to advance were thwarted by Annibali, who humiliated her at every opportunity.”

Similar allegations were made by female Arroyo Grande police officer Kimberely Martin, who filed a claim against the department in September 2010.

Martin alleged that she was retaliated against for voicing her concerns and claims that Annibali’s harassment had been “unending, severe and humiliating.”

Martin alleged that in May 2007, another officer had sexually harassed her and two other female officers, including Cota, with offensive and demeaning comments.

After an investigation, Annibali offered that officer a full retirement and no disciplinary actions, according to the complaint.

In the months that followed, Martin alleges a pattern of disparate actions, such as giving preferential treatment to male officers — who were referred to as “golden boys” — while overlooking female officers for promotion.

Cota’s complaint alleges the same.

The city recently made a statement affirming its confidence in Annibali and noting that supervisors are required to take sexual harassment training every two years, which California law mandates for most managers in government and business.

Both Cota and Martin are seeking general damages for emotional distress and mental suffering and attorney’s fees, among other damages.

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