Female convention center employees file lawsuit against city, accusing male supervisors of harassment and sexual assault

Suit claims city-run facility ‘has become a den where male supervisors prey on their female subordinates’

The lawsuit was filed Friday in Bexar County District Court. (Joshua Saunders, KSAT)

SAN ANTONIO – Female maintenance employees at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center were subjected to sexual harassment, sexual assault, battery and verbal abuse by their male supervisors, a lawsuit filed Friday in Bexar County District Court claims.

The suit, which seeks more than $1 million in damages, comes after a series of stories from KSAT Investigates revealed that at least five maintenance supervisors at the convention center have been accused of improperly treating female coworkers in recent years.

San Antonio’s city attorney said via email Monday the city will seek to get the suit dismissed.

The suit claims that under the watch of Convention and Sports Facilities Director Patricia Muzquiz Cantor, the convention center “has become a den where male supervisors prey on their female subordinates.”

Muzquiz Cantor told KSAT earlier this year that it is important to her to have a safe, healthy and welcoming environment for all employees.

The comments came weeks after a maintenance crew leader resigned amid accusations he groped two female employees and exposed himself to one of the women in a convention center elevator.

KSAT reporting prominently featured in suit

The 39-page suit repeatedly mentions KSAT’s previous reporting on the allegations from female employees.

The plaintiffs in the case are Maria Villegas, who first described her mistreatment to KSAT during an interview last summer, as well as a second maintenance employee who has since resigned and previously asked KSAT not to identify her publicly.

In August 2021, while Villegas walked alongside co-workers near a convention center loading dock, surveillance camera footage showed her then-supervisor, Juan Cortez, grab the back of her hair and then yank it.

Villegas was diagnosed with neck strain and at one point was instructed by her doctor not to lift anything at work over 20 pounds.

Villegas also detailed a previous incident in which Cortez pulled her arm and put it behind her back like a police officer.

Cortez was later suspended five days and moved to another area of the convention center to prevent any further interaction with Villegas.

Cortez, however, was repeatedly allowed to attend meetings with Villegas, “where he would give her menacing looks and glances in retaliation for her complaints,” the suit claims.

He was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault last summer, weeks after KSAT Investigates exposed city surveillance footage of him yanking Villegas’ hair.

For nearly a year, law enforcement took no formal action against Cortez.

“It is a travesty that the media did more to protect and defend Ms. Villegas than her own employer,” the suit states.

Cortez retired from the city earlier this month.

He is scheduled to go to trial in the assault case in early May.

Villegas was also on the receiving end of sexually charged messages from a second male supervisor.

Villegas also said the man previously groped her at work on two occasions, “grabbing all over” in one incident before she ran out of his office.

He resigned last summer, a day after HR received a formal complaint about him.

The second woman named in the suit said she was physically and sexually assaulted, harassed, and retaliated against by several of her supervisors before resigning her position.

The woman spent days at a psychiatric unit last year after attempting to file a complaint with the mayor at city hall about her treatment at work.

She said she went to city hall only after three separate complaints she made against her crew leader to convention center management went nowhere.

“I was so stressed, emotionally stressed, I threw up in my car,” the woman told KSAT last year, describing the aftermath of one of the incidents.

“Defendant deliberately made (redacted) working conditions so intolerable that she was forced into an involuntary resignation,” the suit claims.

An attorney for the national law firm representing the women, Lynn Ellenberger, told KSAT on Monday that they plan to seek class action status, and other potential victims could be added to the suit.

Ellenberger said potential victims who do not wish to be identified in the suit can file confidential claims.

San Antonio City Attorney Andy Segovia released the following statement via email Monday afternoon:

“The City of San Antonio works to provide a safe, discrimination- and harassment-free work environment for all City employees. We investigate specific allegations of inappropriate conduct and, based on the findings, take appropriate action. This process applies to all City departments and facilities. The City will seek dismissal of the case.”

About the Author:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.