Galveston council agrees to settle 'chocolate bunny' lawsuit

John Suayan, Galveston Bureau Jun. 16, 2008, 6:16am

Galveston City Manager Steve LeBlanc

GALVESTON – The end is nigh for a sexual discrimination lawsuit filed against the city of Galveston by a female police officer as a result of an allegedly racy Christmas party skit.

Galveston City Council approved the expenditure of $50,000 to settle the eight-month-old "chocolate bunny" suit of Renaye Ochoa toward the close of its June 12 meeting.

Ochoa previously accused the city of failing to investigate a grievance of hers which arose from the holiday get-together, lamenting she was subjected to retaliation from her superiors.

The disbursement keeps Ochoa and the city out of the courtroom.

Neither Ochoa nor Anthony Griffin, her attorney, was present at the time of the vote.

Ochoa filed the suit in 212th District Court in October 2007.

Ochoa attended a Christmas party the year before in which Annie Almendarez, a fellow female officer, paraded around in a Playboy bunny-style costume, according to the original petition. Almendarez was a participant in City Manager Steve LeBlanc's annual holiday entertainment show.

The suit stated LeBlanc sat down on Santa's lap and asked for a "chocolate bunny;" Almendarez subsequently appeared on stage.

Being of African American descent, Almendarez claimed adding the color descriptor, for which the suit was nicknamed, was her idea.

The scene reportedly appalled Ochoa, who went on to file a complaint with the department. LeBlanc wrote a letter of apology in response, saying he never meant to be offensive.

Her attempts to address the supposedly offensive nature of the skit were unsuccessful as Ochoa claimed authorities turned deaf ears toward her.

Colleagues began to discriminate against Ochoa when word about her complaint went out. They even e-mailed her continuously in hopes she would drop her protest, said Ochoa.

The suit contended Almendarez physically threatened Ochoa and one of Ochoa's car tires was slashed.

Ochoa sought compensatory damages, including attorneys' fees and court costs.

By choosing to settle the lawsuit, city documents Griffin aspired to access will remain out of reach.

The city had asked those documents be withheld given huge volume of the request, which it perceived as harassment.

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