On May 3, at U.S. District Court in Albany an eight-member jury ruled that former code enforcement officer Jeanne Edwards and DPW truck driver Sandra Soria suffered sexual harassment at the hands of co-workers, including former DPW superintendent Steve Gorsline and assistant foreman Tim Williams. (Gorsline has since retired; Williams stepped down from his supervisory role and now works as a laborer for the department.) The jury also found that Edwards’ layoff on May 2009, which Mayor James Sottile portrayed as a budget-cutting measure, was in fact retaliation for the lawsuit. The jury ruled that a third plaintiff, DPW Administrative Aide Carole Huppert, was not sexually harassed.
The jury awarded Edwards $55,000 and Soria $25,000. The decision also requires the city to reinstate Edwards to her former position and pay the women’s legal fees and court costs. The city’s insurers are expected to pick up the tab for the cash awards and the legal fees while Mayor James Sottile said he was looking for money in the city budget to cover the cost of Edwards’ reinstatement.
During the trial, all three women said that they suffered degrading treatment while working for DPW. Edwards told jurors that Gorsline and Williams mocked her with a fake breast labeled “Gov’t Tit” — something she said was particularly hurtful since she is a breast cancer survivor. Soria said that the DPW garage where she worked was littered with pornography and pinups and that she frequently endured harassing comments from coworkers. When she complained about one instance of harassment, she said, sanctions against the perpetrator ended with a forced apology. The women’s attorney, civil rights lawyer Michael Sussman, said the harassment was abetted by the fact the city had never implemented a sexual harassment policy or provided training to employees and supervisors about the issue.
“(City human rights director) Tawana Washington said that she got the (sexual harassment) policy in 2002 and she put it in a file,” said Sussman. “Enough said.”
Sottile, who had said that he looked forward to a full airing of the dispute at trial took a conciliatory tone after the verdict.
“I think it was an extremely fair decision, I think that justice was served and I will abide by everything in the judgment,” said Sottile. “It was an unfortunate set of circumstances, there was a hostile work environment and I will do everything I can to ensure that type of behavior does not happen again.”
Edwards said that Sottile had sent her a gracious e-mail and suggesting that they put the case behind them a move ahead. Edwards, who has been working part time for UARC since she was laid off, said that she was looking forward to returning to work, perhaps as early as Monday, May 9. Edwards added that Sottile had assured her that the city had put measures in place to prevent the kind of harassment she suffered, including training for employees and supervisors and the development of a new employee manual that will spell out policies and procedures.
“(The verdict) means that our judicial system works [and] they know that changes had to come to Kingston. I’m sorry it had to come this way,” said Edwards. “For us, this was never about the money. It was about the principle and cleaning up the work environment.”