$2.25 Million Settlement for Ex-Willits Police Officer in Sexual Harassment & Retaliation Lawsuit

Partner Matthew McNicholas and Of Counsel Jason Oliver obtained a $2.25 million settlement on behalf of Natalie Higley, a former officer in the Willits Police Department (WPD), who alleged she suffered sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation by her superior, Lieutenant Derek Hendry, who has since been terminated.

Higley was recruited by then-Lieutenant Hendry and enrolled in the WPD in July 2020. Shortly after, Hendry began making inappropriate comments and speaking to Higley in a sexual manner about how women wanted him. Hendry also made fun of Higley’s body by calling her fat, telling her to lose weight and giving her the nickname “McHigley.” Hendry did not make similar comments to the male recruits.

After Higley completed her six-month field training program, Hendry suggested they celebrate by going to get a drink and drove her out on an isolated road. Hendry began probing Higley with personal questions about her sexual preferences and exploits and asking if she would engage in sexual acts with him. During the drive, Hendry was drinking alcohol and threatened that “people could never know that they were out together.”

From July 2020 to October 2021, Higley endured additional, relentless harassing and discriminatory conduct by Hendry. On October 5, 2021, Higley made a formal complaint to Chief Fabian Lizaraga about the ongoing harassment and hostile working environment. Higley was then placed on medical and stress leave by her physician on October 6, 2021. The following day, Chief Lizaraga informed Higley that Hendry was being placed on administrative leave.

Once Hendry was placed on administrative leave, he repeatedly called and texted Higley to force communication with him. Fearing for her safety, Higley engaged in protected activity and reported the harassment to WPD and outside agencies. After making these complaints, Higley was further retaliated against for reporting the harassment to a government agency. In January 2023, Chief Lizaraga informed Higley that she had to turn in her badge, gun, police I.D., and department-issued phone and radio. Additionally, Higley’s photo in WPD uniform was removed from the wall at the department. Chief Lizaraga effectively stripped Higley of her police powers in retaliation for engaging in protected activity.