Failure to protect employees against sexual harassment focus of lawsuit

Stock Photo | St. George / Cedar City News

CEDAR CITY – Eight Iron County School District employees believe action by school officials could have spared them years of sexual harassment by a colleague and a hostile working environment.

The eight Jane Does, listed by name in court documents, are suing the district and then Principal Kendall Benson, then Vice Principal Trent Nielsen and former counselor Samuel El-Halta – all were employees of Cedar Middle School.

Benson has since retired, El-Halta was terminated, and Nielsen is still employed by the school district.

Attorneys for the women, Peter Stirba and Scott Burns, filed the civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court Sept. 19.

The female plaintiffs listed in the lawsuit are as follows: Lisa Allred, Vickie Bolton, Aleese Cardon, Jarica Hunter, Anita Jolley, Kasey Reese, Regina Weeks and Ashley Whiting.

The names of plaintiffs and defendants in this type of a case often remain confidential. However, attorneys for the plaintiffs chose to list the names of all parties involved after their identities became public during a criminal case against El-Halta, Burns said.

“Everyone already knew who they were and their names came out in the criminal case,” Burns said. “So rather than wait for the discovery and having to go through all of that, which would have ultimately led to the release of their names anyway, we just decided to file it up front from the onset of the case.”

The documents allege the harassment occurred from 2007 to around 2015 when El-Halta was finally charged with seven counts of sexual battery and two counts of accessing pornography on school property.

El-Halta pleaded guilty to all nine counts Jan. 28 and was sentenced to 24-months unsupervised bench probation, which means he must abide by certain court conditions but doesn’t have to report to a parole or probation officer. He was ordered to pay a fine and court fees, obtain a psychological evaluation, and began serving 15 consecutive weekends in the Juab County Jail beginning May 6.

The lawsuit comes after the plaintiffs each filed charges of discrimination with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission July 16, 2015.

In its finding released earlier this year the EEOC stated: “that there is reasonable cause to believe that (the district and others) violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by failing to protect the charging parties and other females from years of ongoing verbal and physical sexual harassment, even though they had knowledge of ongoing illegal harassment.”

The Department of Justice followed by issuing the women a “right to sue” notification giving them the go-ahead to file a lawsuit against the school district and said representatives.

Like the EEOC complaint, the federal lawsuit alleges the ICSD discriminated against the women based on their gender. The women also stated they experienced retaliation by officials and colleagues after reporting the sexual harassment, resulting in a hostile working environment that violated the plaintiffs’ rights under Title VII and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“ICSD purposefully and intentionally discriminated against Plaintiffs based upon their sex, in violation of Title VII, when they subjected Plaintiffs to a pattern of severe, offensive, pervasive and unwelcome sexual harassment including, among other things, sexually explicit comments, sexual battery of Plaintiffs intimate body parts, quid pro quo, and requests for sexual favors,” the complaint states.

The harassment began in 2007 immediately after El-Halta began working at Cedar Middle School as a counselor.

“When El-Halta began working at Cedar Middle School, he began a pattern of conduct that would quickly evolve into severe sexual harassment toward Plaintiffs and other female employees at Cedar Middle School,” the complaint states.

During this time, El-Halta acted in a supervisory position over the plaintiffs and was part of the administrative team at Cedar Middle School. The court documents argue this placed the defendant in a position of power and authority over the plaintiffs.

The 31-page lawsuit describes in detail the ongoing sexual harassment that ranged from offensive innuendos and inappropriate comments to what court documents state was intentionally touching the women’s “breast, buttocks, back, shoulders and legs in a sexual manner.” El-Halta made several requests for sexual favors in relation to work and non-work related matters.

As to the charge of accessing pornography on school grounds, El-Halta showed the plaintiffs naked photos of other women on his computer on several occasions. He also asked them if they had any “naughty” pictures saved on their phones.

In 2013, El-Halta got ahold of a phone belonging to one of the women and accessed several nude photos she had saved of herself and sent them to his personal phone.

The women complained to both the school and district administrators for several years about El-Halta’s behavior – both individually and collectively – the lawsuit alleges, but their complaints were not taken seriously.

“In fact, on several occasions, Benson and/or Nielsen would downplay or excuse El-Halta’s conduct for various reasons, including that he had marital problems or that he suffered from depression,” court documents state. “Often Benson and Nielson would respond to complaints by laughing it off and commenting ‘Oh, that’s just Sam,’” or by telling the Plaintiffs that they were “overreacting or implying that they were asking for it.”

There were no sexual harassment policies and reporting procedures in the school or the district, according to the complaint.

Officials also lacked adequate training to deal with the issues at hand until the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year when Cedar Middle School held its first sexual harassment training for employees.

The female plaintiffs also allege the administration at Cedar Middle School had a personal relationship with El-Halta that protected him and allowed his behavior to continue.

“Plaintiffs felt that there was a ‘boys club’ mentality, in which El-Halta could get away with his harassment without repercussion because of his relationship with Benson and Nielsen,” according to court documents. “As a result, El-Halta’s behavior not only continued, but also escalated in its frequency and offensiveness.”

A school district employee who worked outside of the middle school reported the harassment to district administrators in 2014, which finally triggered an investigation, albeit retaliatory, court records state.

The complaint alleges that during the investigation, district officials continued to allow El-Halta to remain on the job working with the plaintiffs. They also broke the women’s confidentiality by providing the defendant a list of his accusers and instructed him to apologize to them for his conduct.

Officials also allowed other employees to ridicule the plaintiffs for opposing the sexual harassment and blame them for El-Halta’s termination, court documents state.

Interviews with the plaintiffs by a district investigator were also considered by the women as inappropriately handled as the plaintiffs were pulled out of class without warning and without a union representative. They were also forced to walk past their harasser coming in and out of the interviews.

District officials also did not report El-Halta to the police. One of the plaintiffs went to the Cedar City Police Department and initiated a criminal investigation.

Plaintiffs are asking to recover attorney’s fees as well as general, special, and punitive damages and any other relief the court deems just and appropriate. A dollar amount was not specified in the court documents.

Burns did not elaborate on the case but said the court documents speak for themselves.

Iron County School District issued a prepared statement via their attorney, Blake Ostler:

“The Iron County School District is in the process of carefully reviewing and assessing the lawsuit with State Risk Management and its outside legal counsel. Findings made by the EEOC have no binding effect in a subsequent lawsuit and are made without considering any evidence and without a hearing,” the statement reads. “The findings by the EEOC are largely based on allegations made by the employees who filed and do not represent a conclusion based on due process.

“Allegations made in a Complaint do not establish facts that have been reviewed and determined based on evidence but mere assertions by employees. The Iron County School District will respond to these allegations in due course.”

Email: tsullivan@stgnews.com

Twitter: @tracie_sullivan

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.

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