A former Dunwoody Police Department officer has sued the city over the sexual harassment claims he previously asserted against former Lt. Fidel Espinoza, who is alleged to have demanded sexual images and talk in exchange for work benefits.
Roger Halstead is seeking $500,000 plus punitive damages and back pay in the lawsuit, which was filed July 7 in DeKalb County Superior Court, according to his attorney, Laura Austin. The suit names as defendants the city, Espinoza, Police Chief Billy Grogan, Mayor Lynn Deutsch, City Manager Eric Linton, City Clerk Sharon Lowery, city Human Resource Director Nicole Stojka, and police Maj. Oliver Fladrich, who oversees DPD’s patrol division.
Espinoza’s local phone number is disconnected and the lawsuit says his whereabouts are unknown, though he may be in Palm Beach County, Florida.
City spokesperson Jennifer Boettcher said July 8 that the city was still reviewing the complaint. She said that, because the lawsuit appears to be largely based on a previous intent-to-sue notice Halstead filed, the city’s response is to refer to a July 2 investigative report about those claims issued by Grogan. That report ruled that Espinoza sent improper sexual messages, but did not harass or coerce Halstead. Boettcher also referred to statements from Grogan and Deutsch issued with the report that both said, in terms of the complaint’s substance, that the report speaks for itself.
Austin said in an email that an attorney for the city told her that at this point, “they had no intent on negotiation for Halstead.”
“From my perspective, this is a sad day and I grieve for all those involved, but this goes beyond all boundaries of decency and jeopardizes all good cops, and we believe justice must be served and this deplorable conduct and its egregious cover-up must stop,” said Austin.
Halstead is one of three complainants represented by Austin who have filed intent-to-sue notices with the city. The others are civilian transport officer Brian Bolden, who claims Espinoza bullied and sexually harassed him and falsely accused him of theft; and former officer Austin Handle, who claims racial discrimination and fears of impending sexual harassment.
“We will be filing suit if they don’t resolve [those other cases],” said Austin, the attorney.
Boettcher said the city’s attorneys will respond to Handle’s intent-to-sue complaint.
Halstead’s lawsuit repeats his claims in a previous official complaint that he was subjected to unfair write-ups that opened him up to sexual harassment from Espinoza, who offered extra work assignments on the condition of providing sexual material. Espinoza showed his penis to Halstead and asked for photos of Halstead’s penis, the lawsuit claims. When Halstead complained about misconduct by various officers, the lawsuit alleges, Espinoza conspired to have him hired by the Brookhaven Police Department, then quickly terminated and blackballed elsewhere.
The lawsuit adds some new claims. One is that “Lt. Espinoza grabbed Halstead’s crotch not less than four times… This was not consensual.” Another is that DPD had dismissed a prior complaint of sexual misconduct and other issues against Espinoza made by another officer. That undated complaint, attached as an exhibit, claims that when the officer expressed interest in joining a task force, Espinoza replied that another officer wanted the job and “he sucks [expletive] better than you.” The officer wrote, “I felt this was highly unprofessional for a senior supervisor to tell a subordinate that he would give a position to someone else based on this highly inappropriate basis.”
“It became clear to Halstead that if he didn’t want Lt. Espinoza to constantly harass him or force write-ups upon him for things that were not of his fault that Halstead would have to go along with Lt. Espinoza’s deviant behavior to stay out of his target sites [sic],” the lawsuit claims. “…As long as Halstead tolerated and pretended to ‘banter’ with the sexual harassment with Lt. Espinoza, no more write-ups came.”
The lawsuit exhibits include what appears to be screenshots of group text messages between Espinoza, Halstead and another officer. The messages include talk of sex and work, sometimes combined.
“Roger I don’t believe you’re gay,” Espinoza wrote in one message, soon adding, “Suck my [expletive] and prove it.” When Halstead responded, “I’m not gay,” Espinoza said, “I thought so.”
In an apparent exchange about a job assignment, Espinoza wrote using a vulgar term for “penis”: “Answer the email. And send me that [expletive] shot.” Halstead responded by saying he did not have the email and, apparently, checking the status of an off-duty job, saying, “I asked first.” Espinoza replied, “I answered lol. Roger if you didn’t get it you can sell your [expletive] for some money. I’ll buy that [expletive] for 1 hour.”
In another apparent reference to job assignments, Espinoza told the officers, “The king occasionally must starve his peasents [sic] for them to appreciate his power.”
Grogan’s investigative report about the complaints from Halstead and Bolden that said Espinoza indeed sent improper sexual messages to Halstead and others but did not harass or coerce them. “Furthermore, in Halstead’s case, it is quite apparent that he was a voluntary and willing participant in the same conduct, even after leaving Dunwoody PD,” Grogan wrote in the report.
The lawsuit alleges that Grogan in a text message suggested that Halstead drop harassment complaints he made while working as an officer. It also complains that Grogan allowed Espinoza to resign in May rather that suspending him pending an internal investigation of the complaints filed by Halstead and Bolden, a move the lawsuit describes as “extreme and outrageous and beyond all possible bounds of decency and utterly intolerable in a civilized society…”
Grogan is named as a defendant, the lawsuit says, “for sustaining and participating in malicious retaliatory actions forming a pattern of corruption within the Dunwoody Police Department.”
The lawsuit says Deutsch and Linton are named for alleged failure to respond to Halstead’s complaint in a timely manner; Stojka for, among other things, allegedly “disallowing exit interviews” to avoid written complaints; Fladrich for alleged “deliberate indifference to or tacit authorization of” Espinoza’s conduct and the alleged blackballing of Halstead; and Lowrey for responding to requests for records about the case with an initial estimate of roughly $6.5 million.
Grogan’s report said that Halstead never made a formal sexual harassment complaint to Stojka and that he was not blackballed. The city previously said that the $6.5 million open records fee estimate was based on Austin’s overly broad request for materials from several employees, which was later narrowed in collaboration with her.
Update: This story has been updated with comment from the city of Dunwoody and from attorney Laura Austin.