816 North

Former deputy settles $1.2 million in Clay County harassment suit

Updated: 2013-09-14T00:24:26Z

By GLENN E. RICE

The Kansas City Star

Clay County officials have agreed to pay a former sheriff’s deputy $1.2 million to settle her claims that she was repeatedly subjected to persistent, unwanted sexual advances and harassment by six male co-workers.

The settlement ends a civil lawsuit Merri P. Phillips filed in 2012, in which she said that the sheriff’s office fostered a hostile work environment where she was constantly belittled, degraded and humiliated. According to the suit, a fellow deputy once texted Phillips a photo of his genitals. When she complained, Phillips’ supervisors allegedly dismissed her allegations, labeled her a “troublemaker” and gave her a written reprimand.

In her lawsuit, Phillips said she was “terrified that the officers intended to rape her.”

Phillips began working for the sheriff’s office on Nov. 22, 2010, and was assigned to the detention center. Phillips said that the harassment began several months later and grew increasingly worse. Phillips resigned in August 2012 and later filed a complaint with the Missouri Human Rights Commission.

The sheriff’s office conducted an internal investigation after being notified of the complaint. Several deputies were later fired and others were disciplined as a result of the internal investigation, county officials said at the time.

“While the allegations that were the basis of this lawsuit occurred under the prior sheriff, the current sheriff, Paul Vescovo, is committed to making sure improper employee behavior is eradicated,” Katee Porter, legal counsel for the sheriff’s office, said Friday.

The sheriff has provided training to make employees aware of proper workplace behavior, Porter said.

In her lawsuit, which was settled late last month, Phillips said a deputy made inappropriate sexual comments about Phillips’ body and referred to her with a sexually derogatory name. The deputy also slapped and squeezed Phillips’ rear end, according to the lawsuit.

A second deputy repeatedly asked Phillips to meet him after work for sex, the suit alleged, and he grabbed Phillips’ breasts on another occasion.

Phillips said that a third deputy tried to kiss her. A fourth deputy asked her to have sex and sent her a text containing a lewd photo.

On another occasion, two detention workers walked into a room where Phillips was working and grabbed her, the suit said. While one worker restrained Phillips’ arms, the other tied her shoelaces together so she could not escape. The suit said officers then removed her duty belt and pants belt and unsnapped her pants. They eventually let Phillips go and laughed about what they did.

To reach Glenn E. Rice, call 816-234-4341 or send email to grice@kcstar.com.

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