Ky. Department Of Corrections Settles Sexual Harassment Suit For $1.5 Million

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Eleanor Klibanoff

Lisa Suliman, Jennifer Dennis and Colleen Payton, pictured left to right, were part of a $1.5 million settlement from the Kentucky Department of Corrections.

Kentucky will pay four women a total of $1.5 million to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit stemming from their time working as prison guards at Little Sandy Correctional Complex in northeastern Kentucky.

The women alleged that Sergeant Stephen Harper harassed and assaulted them in 2012 and 2013 — groping them, exposing himself and forcing himself on them. They also claim that the Department of Corrections failed to properly investigate and punish Harper.

An Elliott County jury agreed, awarding the women $1.6 million, plus attorneys’ fees, last year. The state appealed the decision, but recently approached the plaintiffs’ lawyers with the settlement offer.

“It points out the seriousness of the situation that the [Department of Corrections] decided to settle this instead of fight it any further,” said Joe Childers, a Lexington attorney who represented two of the women.

[Read more: Kentucky’s Female Corrections Officers Say Sexual Harassment Is Part Of The Job]

In a statement, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Lisa Lamb said the women deserve closure.

“We were eager to have it resolved for the benefit of all parties, including taxpayers who would face even greater costs on appeal,” Lamb said.

Lamb noted that the claims date back to 2012. But Harper remains employed at Little Sandy.

There is an ongoing Personnel Board investigation into his conduct and the Department of Corrections’ handling of sexual harassment complaints more broadly.

“Since an employee action was not taken after the original investigation in 2013, the state merit system does not allow us to take action retroactively regarding his employment,” said Lamb.

For the four women involved in this lawsuit, the settlement brings to a close a years-long attempt to seek justice for what they say was severe and pervasive sexual harassment and assault at their workplace.

“One reason to settle was to get closure,” said Ned Pillersdorf, a Prestonsburg attorney who represented the other two women. “But they’re also genuinely concerned about other female correctional officers and we hope this helps future correctional officers who find themselves in a similar situation.”

[Read more: KyCIR Amplify: Former prison guard Jennifer Lynn Dennis]

Pillersdorf said the Department of Corrections promised his clients it would change how the agency investigates sexual harassment, including sending serious complaints to an outside investigator, rather than the prison’s HR department.

“Hopefully this settlement will not only help these four, but will help other female correctional officers who are faced with a decision to make — ‘if I report [sexual harassment], am I going to be ignored? Am I going to be retaliated against?’” Pillersdorf said .

Lamb did not respond to follow-up questions about those changes.

The women’s complaints were never substantiated as sexual harassment by the agency. One of the plaintiffs, Lisa Suliman, said she was told her complaint was lost. Others were dismissed or came back unsubstantiated.

The women also said they faced severe retaliation for reporting the harrassment. They allege they were called names, given bad assignments and, in one woman’s case, other guards didn’t come to her aid during a prison fight.

According to analysis by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, the Department of Corrections substantiated sexual harassment complaints less frequently than all other state agencies over the last six years.

Though corrections employees make up only 15 percent of the state workforce, they represented more than 50 percent of all sexual harassment complaints during that same time period, KyCIR found.