A Vista Superior Court jury awarded $1.5 million to a woman that claimed sexual harassment by an Oceanside police officer. According to Kimberli Hirst’s complaint filed in 2010, she alleged that she was subjected to repeated, offensive and unwanted sexual behavior at work for several months, including sexual comments about her body and requests for sexual acts. Hirst worked for the city as a forensic phlebotomist. She alleged that the officer who harassed her did so in locked rooms at the Oceanside Police Department or at the Vista jail.
Notwithstanding the jury’s verdict, however, Superior Court Judge Jacqueline M. Stern reviewed Hirst’s case against the city of Oceanside and reversed the decision. The judge issued a three-page ruling that the damages awarded were “clearly exorbitant” and not supported by the evidence. The judge believed Hirst’s testimony “appeared staged at times and not credible” when she talked about her emotional distress. “For example, Plaintiff cried numerous times during her trial testimony, but admitted that when she eventually discussed the harassment four years ago, she did not cry,” Stern said in her ruling. “Moreover, if (the officer’s) behavior caused her so much distress, the Court questions why she did not report this conduct to at least her supervisor, with whom she was good friends,” the judge said. “Further, belying her emotional distress claim, she continued to take jobs at OPD, even when she had the opportunity to work elsewhere.”
The city defendant will be given a new trial.
It is extremely rare for a judge to overrule a jury on factual determinations or witness credibility. It remains to be seen whether the judge’s decision will survive on appeal.