A former police lieutenant has filed a discrimination complaint against Laguna Beach, claiming he was denied a promotion based on his sexual orientation and union leadership.
Retired Lt. Joe Torres filed the complaint on March 4 in Orange County Superior Court, alleging former police chief Laura Farinella denied his promotion to captain in 2019 partly because he isn’t gay. Farinella made history as the first gay police chief in Orange County history.
Torres also claims he endured sexual harassment, sexual discrimination, and retaliation while employed by the department, according to the complaint.
“The City has a long history under Farinella of not promoting people who are of a different sexual orientation than she is, and giving extreme preferential treatment to others of the same sexual orientation as Farinella,” Torres’ attorney Brittany Broms wrote in the complaint.
Farinella allegedly offered numerous officers the opportunity to attend trainings that other officers were denied the ability to attend because of favorable treatment, Broms wrote.
Additionally, Torres was elected by his peers as Laguna Beach Police Management Association president in 2016. His constitutionally protected duties as a labor leader included speaking out at public meetings about matters of public interest, including the efficiency and sustainability of the department and its employees.
Retiring City Manager John Pietig is also named in the complaint as a defendant because he’s vested with policy-making authority. City Attorney Phil Kohn declined to comment on the litigation.
In November 2019, a captain position was opened for testing. Torres tested for the job and was told he was the most qualified candidate because had five years more experience than the other candidate and he earned a Master’s degree, according to the complaint.
Laguna Beach employs two police captains: Jeff Calvert and Rachel Johnson.
Calvert joined the department in 1996 and currently serves as interim police chief, following the abrupt departure of Chief Robert Thompson.
A former lieutenant for the Newport Beach Police Department, Johnson joined Laguna Beach as a police captain in February 2020 with 19 years of law enforcement experience. The Marine Corps veteran has spearheaded the department’s response to COVID-19 and constantly changing state and county health orders. She also leads the Support and Investigative Services Division.
Torres is seeking lost wages and benefits, punitive damages, attorney fees, legal costs, and other relief, according to the complaint.
Broms didn’t respond to requests for comment from the Independent. Torres didn’t respond to a message left with his wife’s dental practice on Wednesday.
Only a year ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity was illegal nationwide.
GLAAD spokesperson Barbara Simon noted that the complaint does not offer specifics about how and when the former chief allegedly discriminated against Torres.
“The former chief’s 31 years of service, in a field where women, LGBTQ people and people of color are traditionally under-represented in leadership roles, should be a model of visibility and inclusion for all officers and members of the community,” Simon said. “Her sexual orientation should not be weaponized in a labor dispute or used to damage her historic record without clear evidence of wrongdoing.”