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The Malibu Times as well as a story in the Conejo Valley Acorn, reports that 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 unfolded over nine days of testimony from April 8 to 19 at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown L.A. Among the witnesses were Seetoo herself and former L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, under whose administration the alleged mistreatment occurred. Villanueva himself was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Seetoo started with LASD as a custody assistant in 1997 at age 20. She was first in her class at the academy and rose through the ranks, arriving at Malibu/Lost Hills sheriff station as operations lieutenant, or second-in-command, in November 2018.

On her first day the captain, Josh Thai, suffered a medical emergency, making her acting captain. That same week saw the Borderline mass shooting and the Woolsey fire, with Seetoo leading the station’s response to that historic disaster.

In early December Villanueva was sworn in as sheriff, having campaigned on a promise to let local communities choose their captains.

According to Seetoo’s original complaint, filed in January 2020, she soon began to face accusations from higher-ups that she was jockeying for the absent captain’s job. These included false comments about an “inappropriate relationship” with the city manager in one of the municipalities in her jurisdiction, insinuations which Seetoo believed came from the office of the sheriff himself.

Seetoo was removed as acting captain and told she owed additional time as watch commander to be eligible for promotion. But this policy of Villanueva’s was not consistently applied to male officers, her suit alleged. She was also prevented from transferring to the detective bureau for a similar reason.

When the captain position at Lost Hills opened in June 2019, Seetoo applied but did not get an interview. The 10 candidates selected to interview were all male.

City officials told Seetoo they had sent a letter to LASD demanding that she be considered, which made her concerned about the potential repercussions. After Agoura Hills honored her Woolsey fire work by asking her to ride in the Reyes Adobe Parade, new Lost Hills Capt. Matt Vander Horck was allegedly directed to remove Seetoo from the operations lieutenant position he had asked her to fill, as well as her role as Malibu liaison.

At that point, in October, Seetoo complained about the unfounded rumors and retaliation in an email to a commander. Shortly thereafter Vander Horck told her the decision had been made to transfer her to West Hollywood. Sending employees to work at stations far from their homes as punishment is a familiar tactic in the sheriff’s department, known as “freeway therapy.” Vander Horck himself was abruptly removed as captain and transferred in Feb. 2020.

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 affair 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.

Seetoo did not allege discrimination by her direct superiors, but rather from the very top of the department. Her complaint mentioned “spies” planted by the sheriff to watch her work. It also spoke of a larger pattern of discrimination against female sworn officers in the LASD under Villanueva.

In May 2022 Seetoo finally became the first female captain at Lost Hills.

Jurors found in Seetoo’s favor after deliberating for just over one and a half hours. The bulk of the jury award – $750,000 – was for non-economic losses including harm to her reputation and emotional distress. An additional $221,369 was awarded for lost earnings and benefits, bringing the total to $971,369. Seetoo also won legal fees.

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.”

The ongoing case is Jennifer Seetoo v County of Los Angeles et. al assigned to Hon. Rupert A. Byrdsong in Department 28 Stanley Mosk Courthouse.