Berkeley Public Library worker alleges employee retaliation, sues library, city

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Berkeley Public Library employee Lisa Hesselgesser filed a lawsuit against the library and the city of Berkeley on Nov. 19, alleging age discrimination, retaliation on the basis of her union affiliation and the intentional infliction of pain, among other charges.

The suit comes after a prolonged dispute between the library and a number of staff members. According to the lawsuit, the contention originated with a 2015 “weeding” effort, during which the library removed outdated books from its racks. The weeding prompted pushback from multiple staff members, and Hesselgesser alleged that the library subsequently retaliated against her because of her “outspoken belief that the library engaged in fraud, abuse, and misuse of public resources” in connection with this process, according to the suit.

Hesselgesser is a library specialist and has been employed by the Berkeley Public Library since October 2001. She could not be reached for comment as of press time.

As part of the retaliation against her, Hesselgesser cites an investigation into her and other staff members’ records, conducted by the former library services manager. This investigation allegedly circumvented “built-in privacy features” of library software and thus breached her right to privacy.

In a 2017 letter to Hesselgesser and her union — Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, Local 1021 — then-director of library services Heidi Dolamore responded to Hesselgesser’s allegations, saying that the library launched the investigation in response to a suspicion that one of the staff members had “improperly accessed and used a patron’s library card.” Hesselgesser was not found to have engaged in misconduct.

Hesselgesser, however, alleged that the “harassment continued and intensified” in the aftermath of the investigation, claiming that her employer further surveilled its employees and deprived them of work opportunities. She then filed complaints with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

As part of this dispute, SEIU Local 1021 and the American Civil Liberties Union contacted the city and the library to express their concern over potential employer retaliation. In February 2017, Hesselgesser and other library staff members sought and were granted whistleblower protection by Mayor Jesse Arreguín.

Hesselgesser said in the lawsuit that she filed an internal retaliation complaint against her employer in May 2017. According to the lawsuit, the library rejected her complaint a year later, and after an unsuccessful appeal, Hesselgesser concluded she had “exhausted her contractual and administrative remedies” to solve the dispute internally.

Hesselgesser’s allegations now include discrimination on the basis of age, violations of the labor code and creating a hostile work environment in the aftermath of her disagreements with the library. She claims she has personally suffered from the effects of her employer’s conduct.

Through the suit, Hesselgesser intends to gain compensation for attorney’s fees, court costs and emotional injuries, among other damages. She claims the damages incurred exceed $25,000.

“As a result of the mistreatment plaintiff has received at the hands of defendants, (Hesselgesser) suffers from depression, anxiety, stress and very low morale,” the complaint said.

City attorney Farimah Brown declined to comment on pending litigation.

Sri Medicherla contributed to this report.

Sophia Brown-Heidenreich is an assistant news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sophiabrownh.