Ruling against VFW cites sexual harassment, retaliation: Judge rules against Blythe post, commander in civil court

A civil claims court judgement against the local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 2987 – and respective Post Commander Bobby Trevino (pictured) – will see the resident organization and U.S. Army veteran pay $5,000 and $1,000 (respectively) in damages related to sexual harassment and retaliation per Riverside County Superior Court Judge Russell Moore's published decision. (Archived file photo by Uriel Avendano/Palo Verde Valley Times)

A civil claims court judgement against the local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 2987 and Post Commander Bobby Trevino will see the organization and the U.S. Army veteran pay $5,000 and $1,000 (respectively) in damages related to sexual harassment and retaliation per Riverside County Superior Court Judge Russell Moore’s published decision.

Roughly four months after being presented 2018-2019 All-American and All-State distinctions, the local VFW Post 2987 leadership received the case’s decision on Dec. 20 in relation to claims brought forth and filed by a plaintiff on Oct. 3, 2019.

The court found allegations the plaintiff – who worked at the VFW Post 2987 bar – made regarding unwanted touching and sexually harassing comments by Trevino on July 7, 2018, to be credible and met the burden of proof to render the according decision.

“(The plaintiff’s [name omitted]) wrote out a detailed statement in the days following July 7, 2018, and its contents are largely consistent with the testimony she provided at trial. While a slight discrepancy exists in the timing of events – (the plaintiff’s) testimony described the unwelcome touching by Trevino as preceding the inappropriate remark about her buttocks while her written statement flip-flopped that sequence – the Court finds the discrepancy immaterial in the grand scheme of all the evidence presented,” stated Moore’s statement of decision. “The Court further found (the plaintiff’s) testimony about the night of July 7, 2018, to be more specific and more detailed than Trevino’s. That fact may be attributable to Trevino’s substantial level of intoxication throughout the day and evening of July 7. Further, (the plaintiff’s) testimony that Trevino, unsolicited, offered her oral sex at which time she reminded him of her age (’old enough to be your mother’), is another allegation the Court finds credible. For while (the plaintiff,) like all parties in this case, is quite intelligent, the Court has yet to observe any part of her that suggests she would have the level of creativity needed to fabricate this somewhat detailed version of events and then consistently repeat it.”

Moore’s judgement went on to underline the burden of proof’s scale in the civil matter to be “a mere preponderance of the evidence” presented in the cause of action against Trevino and in favor of the plaintiff.

“A few words about defendant Trevino. The Court found him to be an eminently polite, respectful, and intelligent man throughout the proceedings. The Court does not doubt that Trevino overall has likely been a positive presence at the VFW. But what the evidence elicited in this Court established is that Trevino, like many people, is a very different person when he consumes alcohol. For instance, there was undisputed testimony in this case that at some point in time, including throughout relevant events in this case, Trevino was banned from consuming liquor at the VFW. Insofar as Trevino ultimately rose to the level of commander yet was still subject to a ‘liquor ban,’ the Court infers that Trevino previously engaged in intoxicated behavior that seriously concerned those who manage and/or work the bar,” stated Moore. “Next, the Court has concerns with Trevino’s testimony about the night of July 7, 2018. In some particulars, Mr. Trevino’s testimony was unusually specific, including regarding details for which there would seem to be little to no reason to maintain recollection, e.g. the specific time he arrived home, the male friend he was sending a text message to before leaving the bar, and the subject of that message. Somewhat telling during cross-examination of Trevino by (the plaintiff) was the subject of a timeshare arrangement he had been negotiating at or around the time of the relevant events, including on the evening of July 7. Trevino made no mention of any timeshare discussion during direct examination but rather genuinely seemed to recall it when asked questions by (the plaintiff). Rather clearly to the Court then, it appears that (the plaintiff’s) recollection of the events of July 7 and immediately thereafter is clearer and more credible than Trevino’s. It very well may be that due to his level of intoxication on July 7, Trevino does not now recall all that he said or did that evening. But failure of recollection is not a defense to the plaintiff’s cause of action.”

As noted by the court, the plaintiff’s “failure to prove with substantial specificity the losses” sustained made determining the correct amount of damages to award in the case against Trevino a struggle for Moore.

In addition to $1,000, the judgement also awarded $125 in court costs to the plaintiff in the cause of action against Trevino.

In summarizing the additional found facts that implicated the VFW Post 2987’s liability, Moore noted the procedural conduct following the original report of sexual harassment to the organization by the plaintiff.

“Less than 5 days after (the plaintiff) reported sexual harassment at her work place, she was suspended by the VFW. But matters got worse. Following (the plaintiff’s) suspension, then and only then did the VFW accuse her of a long list of VFW rule violations, some of which if true would constitute crimes. Accordingly, when (the plaintiff) appeared at her VFW disciplinary hearing, she followed the advice of counsel and invoked the privilege against self-incrimination,” stated Moore. “Meanwhile, the Court cannot say whether the VFW disciplinary hearing for Trevino’s alleged inappropriate behavior was properly conducted. There is simply not enough evidence before the Court to make that finding, nor is such a finding necessary in this case. However, what the Court will note is the fact that Trevino apparently received no formal discipline whatsoever for his alleged inappropriate behavior towards (the plaintiff). (The plaintiff,) on the other hand, lost her job as well as, for all intents and purposes, her standing amongst VFW members and her VFW privileges. Thus, the message (the plaintiff) likely received from this entire experience is that reporting the sexual harassment she experienced was clearly the wrong thing to do.”

The court pointed to California law – specifically, Government Code (GC) section 12923, subdivision (a) – which sets forth legislative language to prevent harassing actions in the workplace.

“It must be noted that the sexual harassment at issue in this case occurred by the commander of the VFW. As the court understands the testimony at trial, the commander is the highest-ranking member of the local VFW. As commander, Trevino’s actions while on VFW property for the most part become the VFW’s actions. His position coupled with his mistreatment of women together give off the very distinct message that such behavior is acceptable at the VFW. Further, while there has been testimony that the notice of disciplinary hearing issued to (the plaintiff) and purportedly authored by Trevino (as commander) actually came from someone else, the Court finds that there was no way for (the plaintiff) to have known of his alleged detachment from the proceedings. Imagine then (the plaintiff’s) circumstances: she had reported sexual harassment by the VFW commander, she then found herself suspended, she then found herself served with a long list of alleged VFW rule violations, some of which were criminal and to top it all off, the notice of hearing and designation of hearing officers was on its face issued by the very man she’d accused of sexual harassment,” noted Moore. “The Court thus finds sufficient evidence to support (the plaintiff’s) sexual harassment retaliation claim against the VFW.”

The judgement also lambasted the VFW Post 2987’s operations as a bar.

“The Court is further guided by the dearth of evidence suggesting that anything has been done at the VFW to curb the arguably inappropriate environment that apparently persists at its bar. From everything the Court can tell, alcohol appears to be the chief item of sale at the VFW, and it is apparently available as early as 8 in the morning, 7 days a week. The Court sincerely doubts that this was the original purpose of the VFW, as certainly the brave men who fought in foreign wars and who founded the VFW had to have believed they were creating something more than a seven-day-a-week watering hole,” stated Moore. “Whether or not these characterizations of the current Blythe VFW are overblown or not, what is clear is that insufficient steps are being taken to ensure that the virtually all-female cast behind the almost always open bar are being protected from harassment, including by the highest-ranking officer at the VFW. This is an unfortunate state of affairs that must be remedied forthwith.”

In addition to $5,000, the judgement also awarded $125 in court costs to the plaintiff in the cause of action against the VFW Post 2987.

The cases brought against the VFW Post 2987 and Trevino were heard concurrently over the course of four afternoons, between November and December, consisting of nine witnesses total for both the plaintiff and defendants.

Trevino declined to comment for this story.

“I want to make it clear that the post is not (just) a bar; we are an organization that supports veterans and their families. Community outreach. Especially veterans that have PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and we’re just trying to recruit new young Iraq and Afghanistan veterans,” stated VFW Post 2987 Sr. Vice Commander Douglas DiStefano, further noting the hours of operation for the bar is a membership decision that will be discussed at a future meeting. “We’ve posted flyers inside our post with phone numbers where people can call and reach out (to report misconduct). (...) There’s two sides to the story and we (maintain) our innocence, both for the post and the commander. And we’re going to continue to support the community.”

DiStefano additionally underlined an internal investigation conducted by District VFW officials which saw no findings of misconduct by Trevino.

In response to whether the VFW are planning to appeal the decision, DiStefano stated:

“We don’t know yet; we’re going to view every avenue of approach.”

To date, Trevino remains as post commander of VFW Post 2987.

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