Jennifer Seetoo wins lawsuit against LA County involving former boss Alex Villanueva

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Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff's Capt. Jennifer Seetoo has been awarded just over $971,000 in her lawsuit against Los Angeles County. In the lawsuit, Seetoo accused the former LA County sheriff of discrediting her by spreading false rumors and denying her the chance to interview for a promotion. Contributed photo

Short jury deliberations indicate a slam dunk for local sheriff’s captain

Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Capt. Jennifer Seetoo has won her lawsuit against Los Angeles County implicating former Sheriff Alex Villanueva. Villanueva was accused of discrediting Seetoo by spreading false rumors about her and denying her the opportunity to interview for a promotion. In just under two hours of deliberations, a jury awarded Seetoo just over $971,000 in damages.

The trial at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles started April 2 with jury selection. After nine days of witness testimony the trial wrapped on April 19 when the jury quickly deliberated in Seetoo’s favor.

The sheriff’s captain’s complaint was based on gender discrimination, retaliation, and whistleblower retaliation. 

Although Villanueva was not named as a party in the lawsuit, he was accused of spreading an unfounded rumor that the married Seetoo, then the Malibu Sheriff’s liaison, was having an inappropriate relationship with a city manager in Agoura Hills, a city in her jurisdiction. Villanueva did testify at the trial, but so did a Villanueva colleague, an assistant sheriff who contradicted Villanueva’s testimony. That witness testified that he heard the rumor directly from Villanueva, who stated it as if it was a fact. The former Agoura Hills city official, who now works for another nearby municipality, testified in support of Seetoo, a mother of two, that the rumor was completely baseless and unsubstantiated.

When Seetoo first arrived at the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station in November 2018, she was faced with the Borderline mass shooting in Thousand Oaks and then the very next day, the Woolsey Fire. Former Capt. Josh Thai then left the department due to medical issues. When Seetoo tried to apply for the position, she claimed her efforts were thwarted by her higher-ups at LASD, who eventually transferred her to the West Hollywood station, far from her home, closer to Lost Hills. The transfer, known in local law enforcement circles as “freeway therapy,” is thought to be a punitive action. Seetoo originally submitted an internal complaint under the Sheriff’s Department’s Policy of Equality in October 2019. The lawsuit charged the department with retaliation against her. Evidence presented at the trial showed that a decision was made on her transfer three days after her filing.

Because Villanueva was not named as a defendant in this case, he is unable to appeal the jury verdict. Villanueva, who often clashed with the LA County Board of Supervisors, may be facing other unrelated lawsuits concerning his actions or policies during his term. Villanueva ran an underdog campaign for a seat on the LACOBOS this year but lost in the primary.

It is not known whether the County of Los Angeles will appeal the decision.

Seetoo’s attorney, Kathleen Erskine, said, “It has been a highlight of my career to represent Jennifer Seetoo. She led the Malibu/Lost Hills Station with bravery and skill during the Woolsey Fire, one of the most devastating events in its history. Rather than allowing her to compete for the promotion she deserved, former Sheriff Alex Villanueva and his high-ranking executives discriminated and retaliated against her.  After hearing all the evidence over the course of two weeks —including the testimony of former Sheriff Alex Villanueva— it took the jury less than two hours to find in Ms. Seetoo’s favor and award her nearly a million dollars in damages. We hope this verdict will give other women the courage to come forward when they experience discrimination.”

Erskine elaborated on the damages sought by email, writing, “Seetoo did not request a specific total damages award. Based on the evidence, the jury awarded Jennifer Seetoo $971,369 in damages, reflecting $221,369 in lost salary and benefits from being denied a promotion to captain of the Lost Hills Station in 2019 and $750,000 in emotional and physical harm she suffered through the end of former Sheriff Villanueva’s administration.”

Seetoo has pledged to donate a portion of the funds awarded to help women in the LASD. The gift will be distributed through the LASD Foundation in an effort to help women in law enforcement. Seetoo has previously spoken about the struggles of women in law enforcement, from finding child care to working in a male-dominated field.