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Fired clerk files suit against Oldsmar

Former City Clerk Cheryl Mortenson endured two years of sexual discrimination that began with a City Council member making unwelcome advances, continued with the mayor harassing her when she complained and ended with the council firing her in retaliation, a lawsuit filed against the city this week says.

Mortenson's lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Tampa, names as defendants the city of Oldsmar and former council member Daryl Landis, who no longer lives in Oldsmar. Mortenson sued Landis for battery, which is touching without consent. She has requested a jury trial.

The lawsuit follows a complaint filed by Mortenson, 38, with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission shortly after she was fired April 15 by a 4-1 vote of the council. Council members never explained the firing, although a few said they had "lost faith" in her. Mortenson has since started a local women's magazine.

In addition to discrimination, the lawsuit says the city retaliated against her and created a hostile work environment by tolerating sexual harassment. The lawsuit refers to actions by City Manager Bruce Haddock and Mayor Jerry Beverland.

"It turned out the people she relied on didn't resolve" the harassment, said Lou Kwall, Mortenson's attorney. "What was done was done in more of an effort to quiet her than to resolve the problem."

In the lawsuit, Mortenson reiterates many of the charges she made against Landis in 1995 when she first complained that he was sexually harassing her. Landis, she said, called her "sweetie," "babe" and "honey" at work and at work-related functions.

Also, the lawsuit states, "Landis drew frequent comparisons between (Mortenson) and his wife. He also talked about his wife in a derogatory manner."

During several work-related functions, the lawsuit says, Landis flirted, put his arm around Mortenson, kissed her on the lips and referred to her as his "mistress." Landis' touching was unwelcome and offensive and constituted battery, the lawsuit says.

Landis learned about the lawsuit from a reporter Wednesday.

"I'm really surprised. I thought she had dried up and blew away," said Landis, who refused to say where he lives.

Landis denied Mortenson's accusations, as he has in the past. "Every time it's told, it grows," he said.

"I never did anything intentionally or unintentionally to Cheryl that was inappropriate," he said. "Cheryl should grow up and move on with her life and quit trying to get money for things she doesn't deserve."

The lawsuit says Mortenson was further harassed when she called attention to Landis' behavior. Landis called her, verbally harassed her and accused her of lying, the lawsuit says.

Beverland frequently referred to "rumors" of a sexual affair between Landis and Mortenson, the lawsuit says. The lawsuit also says Beverland told Mortenson in front of her staff that Landis had described her anatomy to him, then proceeded to describe her anatomy himself.

Beverland, who had not seen the lawsuit Wednesday, called the allegations a "bold-faced lie."

"Ask any lady that knows me if I'd do something like that," Beverland said.

Although aware of the harassment going on at City Hall, both Beverland and the city manager, Haddock, failed to take appropriate action, the lawsuit says. The harassment was "tolerated, ratified, or acquiesced in" by those who had final authority over Mortenson's employment, the lawsuit says.

Beverland said the city handled Mortenson's complaints of sexual harassment appropriately. A labor attorney was brought in to investigate and the city held training sessions on how to recognize the signs of sexual harassment, records show.

"I knew her and Daryl had a problem," Beverland said. "I did something about it. I couldn't fire Daryl."

Mortenson's firing was the final act of retaliation for her refusal to submit to Landis' overtures and her complaints of a hostile work environment, the lawsuit says.

Beverland said that accusation "doesn't hold water" because he is the only person on the council who was also on the council when Mortenson made her complaints two years ago. The other three council members who voted to fire her were elected later.

"The sexual harassment thing has nothing to do with her getting fired," Beverland said. "I defy anyone to prove it."