A jury has awarded $315,295 to a former Fontana Unified School District police dispatcher who sued the district after she said she was fired in 2012 as retaliation for reporting that a district police officer had sexually assaulted two other dispatchers.
The jury on July 2 awarded Jolee Berdnik $128,679 for past economic loss, $111,616 for furture economic loss and $75,000 for noneconomic loss, including mental suffering, court documents say. Berdnik’s attorney, Upland-based Brian Hannemann, said Berdnik plans to apply to get her job back.
Berdnik was a probationary employee when she was fired. The district argued during the trial that she was dismissed for performance-related reasons.
The school district and the police officer in the case, John Frank Garcia, 45, have also been sued by three other female school district employees who accused him of sexual assault, including rape in one case. The school district, the lawsuits say, knew or should have known of Garcia’s conduct and failed to act. All three women did not immediately report the incidents because they were afraid of repercussions, including losing their jobs.
Garcia has not been charged with any crime. A message was left with Garcia’s father on Wednesday, July 8, seeking comment from his son.
One of the three school district employees’ lawsuits has been decided. On March 2, a jury awarded a woman $1.487 million from Garcia and the school district. Garcia also agreed to punitive damages of $5 million that will be reflected in the court record but that he will not have to pay, Hannemann said.
“The idea we had was to get him to admit his bad conduct, in exchange for us promising to never try to collect the judgment against him,” Hannemann said.
Garcia was fired in 2012 after that woman made her allegation. Garcia denied sexually assaulting anyone.
The other two cases have not yet gone to trial.
The Press-Enterprise is not identifying the three women because the newspaper does not identify people who consider themselves victims of sexual assault.
The school district would not directly answer questions from The Press-Enterprise on whether anyone else at the district was being held accountable for wrongfully firing Berdnik and whether the district had made any changes to its sexual harassment policy in the wake of the lawsuits.
District spokesman Olivier Wong Ah Sun emailed two statements in response. The first, regarding the Berdnik verdict, said: “The Fontana Unified School District does not comment upon its personnel decisions but wishes to re-iterate that it is committed to ensuring the quality of its staff and a positive workplace environment for all our employees.”
The second, regarding sexual harassment, said: “The Fontana Unified School District is committed to ensuring a zero-tolerance for violations of policy, sexual misconduct, or sexual harassment in the workplace and is doing everything in its power to help ensure a safe environment for all employees, students, and parents.”
Since the women who are suing made their accusations in 2011, the district police chief, superintendent and human resources director have all left, Hannemann said.
Garcia has worked for several Inland law enforcement agencies. He was employed by the Riverside Police Department from 2001 to 2005, resigning after several unspecified internal affairs investigations were completed, according to court records.
Garcia worked for the Fontana Police Department from 2005 to 2006. He was fired during his probationary period after an internal affairs investigation into a cadet’s allegation that he made unwanted physical advances on her, court records show. Garcia, in his application to the school district, said he touched the cadet while demonstrating defensive techniques at her request. The San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute Garcia, citing insufficient evidence, court records show.
Garcia also said on his application that the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and the Rialto and Colton police departments had declined to hire him.
Garcia was out of law enforcement until 2008, when the school district hired him. Robert Ratlcliffe, then a Fontana police lieutenant, was also serving as school district police chief at the time and recommended that Garcia be hired, according to court records. The lawsuits claimed that Ratcliffe approved of the district hiring Garcia despite knowing of the cadet’s allegations.
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