Jurors in federal court will have the ultimate say about whether a former Denver Police Department supervisor experienced discrimination based on his national origin and sexual orientation, as a judge was unable to find either side could clearly prevail under the law.
In a brief order earlier this month, U.S. District Court Senior Judge Christine M. Arguello denied the City and County of Denver's request to side with Denver and dismiss the lawsuit from Gerald "Jerry" Maestas. She struggled to accurately outline the impropriety in the police department's finance office because the court record was saturated with lewd, offensive and harassing conduct that a handful of city workers blamed on each other.
"The parties present entirely different pictures of a workplace rife with sexual harassment and improper conduct, and they heavily dispute the precise nature and context of several incidents," Arguello wrote on Sept. 12.
Maestas claimed in his lawsuit that the unprofessional behavior the city attributed to him at the time of his termination was false, taken out of context or attributable entirely to other people. Denver insisted the hostile atmosphere in the office was Maestas' fault and he was not a victim of any discrimination.
Both sides nonetheless presented an unflattering depiction of the finance office, where a Denver human resources manager's investigation concluded there needed to be a "culture reset" for the entire staff.
Maestas began working as an accountant with the police department in 2006 and was reclassified as a supervisor in 2016. His termination was effective Jan. 25, 2019 based on findings of Maestas' frequent sexual and offensive comments in the workplace, plus his denigration of other employees.
Generally, Maestas accused Denver of believing his white coworkers over him — including his primary tormenter — and of wrongfully firing him when he had no disciplinary history.
"This is a case about a gay man of Spanish ancestry who was employed by the Defendant for 13 years and had a stellar reputation, despite being subjected to severe harassment," Maestas' lawyer, Andrew T. Brake, wrote to the court.
Although the list of incidents Maestas held up as harassment spanned several pages, they centered around one woman in his office: Stephanie Johnson. According to Maestas, she derogatorily called him a "Mexican" and jokingly used another slur for Latinos on him. Johnson also allegedly called him gay even though he was not out, and she acted out sexually in the office.
Those behaviors formed the basis of Maestas' discrimination and harassment claims. He estimated the racial and sexual taunting escalated to a daily occurrence, even though he asked for his coworker to cease her offensive conduct.
The finance director allegedly rebuffed Maestas' attempts to complain about Johnson's behavior. In October 2018, after Maestas reported an unrelated incident about Johnson, she provided a statement to the finance director lodging her own complaints of sexual harassment and workplace misconduct against Maestas. The city then placed him on paid investigatory leave, which led to his termination.
"Mr. Maestas, as the only employee who held himself out as Spanish/Hispanic, was not deemed worthy of belief, in total disregard of the fact that Mr. Maestas' supervisor had never witnessed or heard about any of the falsely alleged misdeeds," Brake wrote.
Maestas filed claims under federal and state non-discrimination law, asking for reinstatement to city employment or corresponding lost wages. In addition, his complaint seeks anti-harassment and sensitivity training for Denver workers.
Denver did not contest there was terrible behavior in the finance office. Instead, the city attributed it to Maestas.
"Plaintiff is not a victim of discrimination or retaliation," wrote lawyers with the Denver City Attorney's Office, "because he, in fact, was the person making inappropriate comments towards his coworkers and subordinates."
Based on statements from other employees, the city accused Maestas of hurling homophobic and sexual comments, implying two coworkers were having a sexual relationship and deriding other employees, including Johnson. Multiple statements from Maestas' coworkers corroborated his presence in the office was toxic.
"I was uncomfortable in the work environment and went on anti-anxiety medications because of him," said one person in court documents. "It was a huge relief when Mr. Maestas left," added another.
The city also shared the human resources investigation into Maestas, which served as the basis for his termination. Although manager Allison Hamel found multiple people in the finance office used inappropriate language and discovered Johnson drew a picture of a penis around her coworkers as Maestas had alleged, she largely faulted Maestas for the poor environment.
"Employees have tried to avoid going into Jerry's office in fear they would be engaged in uncomfortable topics of conversation," Hamel wrote. In her opinion, "there needs to be a culture reset, training and expectations setting with the entire staff."
In evaluating Denver's request to toss the lawsuit, Arguello, the district judge, found several key areas under dispute that could determine whether Maestas was subjected to a hostile work environment based on his national origin and sexual orientation. In particular, the overarching question was whether jurors would believe Maestas' version of events — that Johnson lobbed racial insults and sexual slurs at Maestas so frequently that Denver knew of the harassment and responded by terminating him.
A five-day jury trial is scheduled to begin on Oct. 31.
The case is Maestas v. City and County of Denver.