A Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department employee sued Los Angeles County Monday, alleging she suffered a backlash for speaking out against alleged misconduct by an ally of Sheriff Alex Villanueva, causing the plaintiff to be wrongfully relieved of duty.

Cynthia Maluto’s Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit alleges whistleblower retaliation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Villanueva and Capt. Yvonne O’Brien also are defendants in the suit, which seeks at least $5 million in damages.

The sheriff’s department issued a statement Monday regarding the lawsuit, saying “we are unfamiliar with this lawsuit or its content. Due to the pending litigation, we are unable to comment directly.”

Maluto started at the county’s Community and Senior Services department and worked various positions for 26 years, the suit states. She was promoted several times as senior employee services representative in the sheriff’s department, head department personnel technician at the probation department and ultimately to the sheriff’s department’s assistant director of operations.

Maluto’s career was going well until she allegedly found that O’Brien was involved in questionable conduct, including approving pay for employees for hours they did not actually work, the suit states.

The sheriff’s department should have opened a criminal investigation into O’Brien, but Villanueva “obstructed justice and blocked a proper criminal investigation into this member of his inner circle,” the suit states. Although the sheriff directed that an administrative probe take place, O’Brien was not disciplined, according to the suit.

Villanueva then promoted O’Brien to be acting captain overseeing the Personnel Administration Bureau, placing her in a direct supervisory role over Maluto and enabling O’Brien to “destroy (Maluto’s) her career and life,” the suit states.

“Whistleblowers are supposed to be protected by state and federal statutes and are supposed to be safe from retaliation,” the suit states. “However, the whistleblowers are not safe in LASD and are not protected by the county.”

Villanueva has continued to promote O’Brien and allegedly plans to make her commander over professional standards, overseeing investigations and litigation against the sheriff’s department, the suit states.

The suit alleges that O’Brien and a sergeant gave several unqualified sergeants advantages on an exam for promotion to lieutenant by giving them the questions and answers before they took the test.

The suit alleges Maluto was denied a promotion for which she is qualified in retaliation for speaking out and was also made the target of allegations that “were petty and so innocuous to almost be comical, accusing the plaintiff, without foundation, essentially of not being polite enough in a couple of emails to staff.”

The investigation into Maluto is ongoing and she has been relieved of duty, the suit states.

“Ms. Maluto has been constructively terminated … and suffers from extreme distress, in addition to significant lost salary, as a result,” the suit states.

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