Manager threatened California EPA scientist and kept his job. She was demoted, lawsuit says

A female scientist at the California Environmental Protection Agency says she had to accept a demotion to escape repeated harassment from a male manager who has kept his job.

In a lawsuit filed in Sacramento County Superior Court, scientist Loretta Sylve says former manager John Paine threatened her in a 2017 exchange in which he pounded his fist on a table and told her “I will hurt you” and “your God won’t protect you.”

Sylve in her lawsuit alleges the comments were part of a pattern of harassment that started a year earlier, about two years after she was promoted to senior environmental scientist at the agency following decades of state service.

The lawsuit alleges Paine harassed and discriminated against Sylve, who is African American, based on her race, gender and religion. As a result, she had to take time off on stress leave, has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and has transferred to the EPA’s Department of Toxic Substances Control, an inferior job to the one she had, according to the lawsuit.

“Being promoted into that position was the highlight of her career,” said attorney Zane Hilton, of Bohm Law Group, which is representing Sylve. “And to be forced into this demotion because of the vile conduct of her supervisor is heartbreaking.”

The EPA didn’t respond to requests for comment. Court records indicate the agency has not yet been served with the complaint. Paine didn’t respond to a voicemail or an email.

Starting in 2016, Paine “became aggressive in his tone, undermined Ms. Sylve’s instructions to staff and gave opposite instructions to staff without any reasoning,” according to the suit.

Sylve reported Paine’s behavior to Assistant EPA Secretary Jim Bohon and to an anti-workplace violence coordinator in August 2016. After an investigation, Paine kept up the yelling and demeaning behavior, according to the lawsuit.

On April 6, 2017, Paine made the threatening comments and gestures, according to the suit. Paine referenced Sylve and other women going “over (his) head” to file complaints. He allegedly used profane language in the exchange.

Then, the next day, Paine commented on Sylve’s race as he blocked her from leaving an office, according to the suit.

“When Ms. Sylve tried to leave her office to use the restroom, Paine blocked her doorway and made derogatory statements such as, ‘What are you going to do? Pee yourself? What are you going to do? Poop? How do we know you washed your hands? We can’t tell because it is the same color as your skin,’” he said, according to the suit.

The suit says two other employees approached and tried to calm Paine down. Sylve complained and was sent home that day; Paine was escorted from the building and placed on leave for three months, according to the suit.

Sylve started seeing a psychologist and went on stress leave shortly before Paine was scheduled to return to work in July 2017, according to the suit. She repeatedly requested she be physically moved to avoid Paine at work, but CalEPA didn’t accommodate her request, according to the suit.

Two different doctors diagnosed Sylve with work-related stress and anxiety, and recommended she return to work only under the condition she wouldn’t report directly to Paine.

After months of back-and-forth came an option letter from CalEPA, telling Sylve she could return to work with no accommodations, retire from state service as disabled, resign, or retire. She refused to accept those options.

Eventually she was offered a supervising environmental scientist position with EPA’s Department of Toxic Substances Control. The new position “complied with her accommodations, (but) it is neither as prestigious or fulfilling as her previous position,” the suit states.

Related stories from McClatchy DC