MOUNT VERNON — The sexual harassment lawsuit filed against former Knox County EMA Director Brian Hess and 16 other Knox County defendants has been settled and a request for dismissal was filed in federal court on Tuesday.
According to the settlement document acquired by the News through a public records request, the sum of $74,000 has been awarded to the group of six plaintiffs. Any attorney fees on their part will also come from the figure.
“All they wanted was this guy fired,” said Bill Curphey, attorney for the plaintiffs — Donna Durbin, Leslie Orr, Lisa Pay, Lisa Smith, Nicole Crabtree and Patricia Steward.
Curphey said when he was approached to take the case, he was told the result the dispatchers were looking for was the termination of Hess. Their wish came true in January after the EMA board voted unanimously to terminate his employment for “employee dishonesty and loss of confidence by the board in his ability to lead the agency.” This came on the heals of Curphey presenting evidence to the county regarding harassment issues with Hess while he was employed by the Mohican Juvenile Correctional Family in 2005.
The suit was filed in July 2011, after a third-party investigation took place into allegations of sexual harassment on Hess’ part. Findings of the investigation concluded Hess “participated in unprofessional behavior and/or behavior of an inappropriate nature, particularly given his management responsibilities.”
Hess was given five days off without pay, was required to attend non-harassment training and to meet with Sheriff David Barber once a month for mentoring sessions.
Knox County Commissioner Teresa Bemiller, who serves as 9-1-1 chairwoman, issued a memo to dispatchers on Jan. 10, 2011, explaining the results of the investigation and the disciplinary action against Hess.
In the memo, also acquired by a public records request, Bemiller explained that dispatchers could be transferred to either dispatch office (Mount Vernon Police Department or Knox County Jail) without question. Dispatchers were directed to notify the chairman of the board (Bemiller) and the action would take place.
According to Bemiller, no dispatchers requested a move.
“I was surprised,” Bemiller said. “If you really felt harassed, I think you would want to be removed from that environment.”
Curphey, however, states requests were made but transfers did not take place, which resulted in the filing of the sexual harassment lawsuit.
Bemiller denies Curphey’s claim.
In response to allegations in the lawsuit that Bemiller turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to complaints by dispatchers regarding sexual harassment complaints, Bemiller said that is simply not the truth.
“I would have never ignored allegations of sexual harassment,” Bemiller said. “It has been bothersome to me that this was in [the lawsuit]. I never spoke to a dispatcher. I never received a written complaint [per the county’s sexual harassment policy].”
Mark Troutman, an attorney with Isaac Brant Ledman and Teetor, who served as lead council for the defendants, told the News this morning there were three key factors in the settlement.
“One, it lets the county continue business as usual,” Troutman said. “Two, there is no county money involved. CORSA (County Risk Sharing Authority) pays the money. Three, it was CORSA’s call and it made a business decision to settle the case.”
Troutman said there were many factors involved in determining whether or not to settle the case including the time already put into the case and the time it would take to prepare depositions and prepare for trial and the likelihood for success.
He also confirmed with the News that affidavits were filed by four plaintiffs during the initial investigation into Hess that stated those dispatchers did not feel damaged or did not take offense to Hess’ actions.
The release includes a confidentiality clause which prohibits the release of information, except for a few instances including a public records request. Plaintiffs are prohibited from discussing the settlement except with attorneys, accountants, tax prepares or other professionals, spouses or clergy. Violations can result in a $500 fine.
CORSA is the liability carrier for Knox and 65 other Ohio counties. Bemiller said CORSA handles any liability issues including accidents or lawsuits for all of the county departments.
The release document states that the Knox County defendants objected to a settlement, even though the decision was out of their hands. Bemiller pointed out she would have liked to see the case proceed.
“I prefer something to go ahead and go to trial and have everything said,” Bemiller said.