Tuesday, October 23, 2018
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Florida paid millions settling harassment cases

Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE — The state of Florida has paid more than $11 million over a 30-year period to settle hundreds of cases alleging that state workers were sexually harassed by supervisors and co-workers, or were forced to work in a hostile work environment.

The Associated Press requested the information from the state agency that tracks payments made to settle lawsuits filed against state agencies and state universities.

The information released Monday showed that more than 300 cases have resulted in payments since 1987. Amounts ranged from a $5,500 payment to a Florida State University student who alleged harassment from a supervisor to a $1.3 million payment to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by nurses who worked at state prisons.

Nearly 60 percent of the cases involved employees who worked in the Department of Corrections.

One woman received a nearly $129,000 payment just last year to settle a 2-year-old lawsuit that alleged her supervisor at the Florida Department of Health had discussed sexual activities he had witnessed. He also would comment about women’s breasts and buttocks, according to the lawsuit.

Marie Mattox, the attorney who represented the woman, said she doesn’t think that sexual harassment is "more pervasive" in state government. But she contended it’s tolerated more in select agencies and that it takes longer to resolve lawsuits than those filed against private employers.

Rick Johnson, a Tallahassee lawyer who handles discrimination cases, said he’s "disappointed" there are so many cases but said the state winds up paying more to settle the cases because of "how stridently " it contests the allegations.

"The state is going to side against the victim, against the women," Johnson said.

John Tupps, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott, said that only 2 percent of the payments had occurred during Scott’s time in office. He also noted that Scott this year signed a bill that keeps confidential the names of state workers who allege sexual harassment.

"The governor wants every state employee to be able to work in an environment where they feel safe," Tupps said in a statement. "The overwhelming majority of these expenditures predate the governor’s time in office and are approved by the chief financial officer."

The AP requested settlement payment information from the office of chief financial officer Jimmy Patronis amid allegations of sexual misconduct at the highest reaches of state government.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, a powerful Republican and candidate for governor, is being investigated by the Florida Senate after a report came out that said he had harassed and groped women during his time in office. Latvala has denied the allegations.

Jeff Clemens, who was poised to become the next Senate Democratic leader, resigned in early November after reports he had an extramarital affair with a lobbyist.

The information compiled by the state Division of Risk Management detailed only one payment made to settle an allegation made by a legislative employee. The employee was paid $165,000 in 1997.

But the report does not include a $47,000 secret payment made to a legislative analyst in 1988 to keep her from filing a sexual harassment lawsuit against a powerful state legislator. That case never went to court, but became public after a grand jury released details, which ultimately resulted in a reprimand against the lawmaker.

Florida routinely pays out millions each year to settle numerous lawsuits involving everything from claims from injured workers to residents whose cars or property are damaged by state workers.

Since 1987, the state has paid more than $74 million to settle nearly 2,100 employment related claims including the more than 300 sexual harassment claims.

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