Monday, September 24, 2018
Politics

Did the Florida Legislature heed the warning in this 1997 sexual harassment case?

TALLAHASSEE — There has been only one known legal case against the Florida Legislature for a sexual harassment claim, but that 20-year-old lawsuit could serve as a template if the Senate decides that allegations against Sen. Jack Latvala are legitimate.

Since 1992, Florida taxpayers have paid $11 million in 310 sexual harassment settlements —from nurses exposed to a hostile work environment in male prisons to overt sexual advances from state supervisors — but only one of those payments has been in a case directly involving the Legislature, according to data compiled by the Florida Department of Financial Services.

A $165,000 court-ordered payment in 1997 went to a former staffer in the now-defunct Joint Legislative Management Committee, which oversaw House and Senate operations, and her lawyers. Linda Phelps, an assistant purchasing administrator for the committee, complained about unwanted sexual advances by her boss, Bobby Hinson, from 1992 to 1994, but "no one would believe me," she told a federal court.

Phelps and Hinson continued to work together in the office that handled all legislative purchases until what she described as the "violent sexual assault" on June 30, 1994. After a late night of work and pizza, Phelps testified other staff had left when Hinson exposed himself, pushed her head down and tried to force her to perform oral sex. She hit him and managed to run away.

"His words to me were, ‘I’m going to have you the way I want you’," Phelps, now 68 and retired from the state since 2011 recalled Tuesday. "His lips were white. He had his shirt open. He tried to choke me as he held me down."

Hinson denied it, and his supervisors testified that Phelps never complained. She sued under the federal Civil Rights Act and won. One of her lawyers was George Meros of the Tallahassee office of GrayRobinson.

Now, Meros has been hired to advise the Florida Senate as it grapples with how to handle a claim that Latvala, R-Clearwater, groped, verbally harassed and inappropriately touched an unnamed Senate staff member who, like Phelps, remained in her job during the time she alleges she was harassed.

The Senate has hired retired appellate Judge Ronald Swanson to serve as special master and conduct an investigation into the complaint, write a report about whether the allegations are reasonable, and make a recommendation to the Senate Rules Committee.

The payment to Phelps is one of the 10 costliest settlements paid by the state over the last 25 years, according to the Division of Risk Management. The other large payments include $1.3 million against the Department of Corrections, where 28 nurses won a class action lawsuit in 2007 alleging hostile work environment in four male prisons, $487,500 given to corrections nurses in another case in 2012, and $354,000 against the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office after a secretary sued when she was fired after accusing a lawyer of unwanted sexual advances toward her.

The data was compiled by the Department of Financial Services’ Division of Risk Management at the request of the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald and Associated Press. The division manages the investigation and litigation relating to all federal civil rights claims against the state and its employees, including sexual harassment claims. In addition to the settlements, taxpayers pay for the state’s legal defense provided by either the Florida Attorney General’s Office, contract law firms or state agency attorneys.

Absent from the list of payments is $47,000 paid out by the Florida House in 1988 to a legislative analyst to keep her from filing a sexual harassment lawsuit against former state Rep. Fred Lippman, a Democrat from Broward. The case became public after a grand jury released details, and it resulted in a reprimand against Lippman.

The Florida Department of Corrections has the longest list of claims against it: 280 claims from 1997 to 2017 totaling more than $5.6 million.

The agency has a long history of relocating abusive officers instead of firing them "so there are offenders that offend multiple times," said Marie Mattox, a Tallahassee attorney who has handled numerous sexual harassment cases. According to the risk management data, Mattox won at least $646,000 in payouts from the state’s departments of corrections, health and transportation for her clients in the last 15 years.

Mattox said she receives 15 to 25 cases of sexual harassment each year that involve state and government employment, and 80 percent of them reach a settlement.

That didn’t happen with Phelps’ complaint. It was the only sexual harassment case against the Legislature to go to trial.

During the trial in June 1997, several women testified that Hinson had touched and propositioned them, told dirty jokes and showed racy pictures in the office, according to reporting by the Tampa Bay Times. Phelps testified that her boss kissed and grabbed her at the office, exposed himself while she was alone at her work station, called her on the office intercom and talked to her in sexually explicit terms.

She described how one night in June 1994, after several staffers had been working late and eating pizza, Phelps returned from straightening the kitchen when she was startled to find that everyone was gone — except Hinson.

"What are you doing here? Where is everybody?" she asked.

He started pushing her backward. "I’m going to have you the way I want you right here on this desk," she reported him saying. "He was real glarey-eyed. White face, chalky lips," Phelps said.

He exposed himself, pulled her to a chair, pushed her head down "and tried to engage in oral sex," she said. She hit him, then managed to get away and run to the bathroom, the Times reported. Phelps waited until she thought he had left, then ran to an elevator. He appeared and took the elevator with her. "It’ll be OK," he told her on the way down.

The jury found that Phelps was subjected to unwelcome sexual advances and an abusive work environment and blamed Hinson, Phelps’ immediate supervisor, for the harassment, not the committee’s top staff or legislative leadership.

Although the case was 20 years ago, it may serve as a warning today for the Senate, as it explores the sexual harassment claims while following a Senate rule that offers few specifics about how to proceed.

Key to Phelps’ claim was how much did management know and what did they do about it.

In 1994, Hinson was fired from the Joint Legislative Management Committee after Phelps made the allegations. While legislative leaders couldn’t prove what happened, they concluded based on interviews with several women that Hinson had fostered a hostile work environment. He later got jobs at two other state agencies with the help of glowing references from his supervisor at the joint committee, Pete Ratowski, who later was fired because of the references.

Phelps’ attorneys argued that legislative management was put on notice about Hinson in 1992 when an employee complained about him bothering her and Phelps. Fred Breeze, the committee’s executive director, testified they weren’t aware of inappropriate behavior until after a number of women came forward in 1994. In the end, jurors did not find that Ratowski and Breeze knew or should have known about any unwelcome sexual behavior.

Phelps said she continued to come to work despite the harassment, "trusting that he wouldn’t do it again," but she said she and others felt repeatedly ignored.

"It’s just like abuse," she said. "They apologize and you just want things to be normal."

She said she is saddened that sexual harassment continues to haunt women. "I suggest don’t let it go," she said, but warned it takes an emotional toll.

"Back then, you would lose your job if you came forward with something like this,’’ she said. "It was a nightmare. It was a hard, hard thing to do, but I really couldn’t take it anymore."

The current Senate employee, whose identity has not been made public, has hired Tallahassee lawyer Tiffany Cruz to represent her in the Senate proceedings. Legal experts say she is likely also considering a lawsuit, perhaps as Phelps did 20 years ago, which could expose more secrets.

"They’ve got one big thing to worry about," said Rick Johnson, a Tallahassee attorney who has also represented many sexual harassment victims. "A Senate employee already has hired Tiffany Cruz, and Tiffany is going to sue and when she sues there are going to be subpoenas and documents. They know that. They’ve got to know that."

Herald researcher Monica Leal contributed to this report. Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected] Follow @MaryEllenKlas

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