La Plata County faces a lawsuit that claims county staff for years ignored a former employee’s complaints of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.
Megan Graham, spokeswoman for La Plata County, said the county does not comment on ongoing litigation.
The complaint was originally filed in July 2018 by Bayfield resident Melissa Heath, who used to work for the La Plata County General Services Department. Heath is represented by Durango lawyer James McDonough with Downs, McDonough & Cowan LLC.
The federal lawsuit alleges Heath was the target of a female co-worker’s constant attacks, which, in many instances, reached the level of sexual harassment and discrimination.
“We’re talking extremely lewd conduct ... pretty much a daily barrage of just vicious words and actions,” McDonough told The Durango Herald. “And the county had complete knowledge of this ... and did nothing about it.”
According to the lawsuit, Heath started working at the General Services Department, which consists of the Fleet Division and the Road and Bridge Department, in July 2001 as an administrative assistant. In November 2013, she was promoted to office manager.
McDonough said that for years an unnamed female employee, listed by her initials in the lawsuit as, “R.H.,” had a history of intimidating and harassing co-workers, including attempts to belittle colleagues and making “extreme and offensive sexually derogatory remarks.”
“From 2008-2016, a series of offensive incidents including vulgar assaults and physical assaults involving employee R.H. occurred which were widely known throughout the County Administration, including the Human Resource Department,” the lawsuit says.
Though Heath had in the past been the target of R.H.’s attacks, McDonough said R.H. began to more viciously target Heath around 2016 when R.H. learned Heath was reporting her behavior to county management.
R.H., the lawsuit says, spread rumors about Heath that she was a thief, and called her vulgar names, including a “fat cow, a dirty whore and a dirty (part of female anatomy).”
In April 2016, the unnamed employee was “escorted out of the office” after an incident, yet returned to work a few weeks later. Upon R.H.’s return, the harassment continued, the lawsuit says.
McDonough said Heath was told by Human Resources that the county needed more evidence to prove R.H.’s inappropriate behavior and gave her a video camera to record R.H. Indeed, the county’s September 2018 response to the lawsuit admits a video camera was given to Heath for this purpose.
The county’s response to the complaint does not go into much detail about the case.
Regardless, McDonough said the county put Heath in an unfair situation.
“It was quite a bizarre request, especially considering the health concerns my client had at the time,” McDonough said. “The county and county attorney (Sheryl Rogers) put her in a position ... to go above and beyond, and considering the history of (R.H), it was egregious, and (Heath) couldn’t do it.”
According to McDonough, Heath was experiencing health issues at the time that were exacerbated by stress. In November 2016, she was granted time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act. She returned a few weeks later in January.
“(Heath) returned to work after her medical discharge only to once again find herself the victim of additional harassment as Defendants (La Plata County) had failed once again to take any effective corrective action involving employee R.H.,” the lawsuit said.
Realizing the county was not going to take action, and in the best interest of her health, McDonough said Heath quit from her position with La Plata County, in a termination known as a “constructive discharge” in February 2017.
Heath filed a charge of discrimination in May 2017 with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights and the Colorado Civil Rights Commission alleging the county violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects people from sexual discrimination, retaliation, sexual harassment and intimidation.
That claim was denied in April 2018, allowing her to file a civil lawsuit that says La Plata County’s failure to address the situation resulted in Heath suffering “humiliation, emotional distress and physical pain.”
McDonough said multiple levels of county management are responsible for Heath having no other option than to quit.
“She was a longtime employee, she didn’t want to quit,” he said. “But she had no other choice.”
McDonough said R.H. has since been let go by the county.
Heath is seeking a jury trial for compensation in wages lost, as well as medical expenses and non-economic damages, including emotional trauma.
McDonough said he expects the case to go to trial this fall in the U.S. District Court of Colorado. Judge Raymond P. Moore is presiding over the case.