Sexual Harassment Suit Results in Largest Settlement in Washington County History

In May, two female employees of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Arkansas received the biggest settlement in Washington County history: $395,000. Lori Schmidt, a former sergeant, and Stephanie Guenther, a former corporal, sued the Sheriff’s Office for sexual harassment in November 2009. They claimed that Sheriff Tim Helder and his subordinates permitted open discussion of sexual practices and that the strip search of female inmates was ordered in front of video cameras.
This blog has discussed some of the past humiliations Schmidt and Guenther had to endure before achieving this victory. Sheriff Helder called them “liars” on television. Transcripts of witnesses were filled with criticisms of Captain Osburn, whom they said liked to discuss breast augmentation and preferred to have women prisoners strip searched in the hallway instead of the women’s showers so that he could watch on the monitors in his cubical. When Schmidt voiced a complaint, she was transferred to the night shift, even though with her seniority, she could have remained on the day shift. After she sued for sexual harassment and retaliation, she was moved to an even worse shift that prevented her from seeing her family.

In September 2009, Schmidt and Guenther filed claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Two months later, they filed their complaint in the Western District of Arkansas pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983 and various laws of the state. The specific allegations included Captain Osburn making inappropriate remarks about the type of breast augmentation that two coworkers intended to get, crude descriptions of sexual practices involving chocolate syrup and peanut butter, and telling one coworker whom she could and could not have sex with. Although Osburn’s “wife swapping” parties were widely known–he “invited” junior officers and deputies in his office–he was not disciplined. One senior officer also knew about a photo of Guenther’s breast that Captain Osburn shared with the rest of the office without Guenther’s knowledge.

Schmidt and Guenther might have received more had they gone to trial, said an attorney for the county. Nonetheless, they were very satisfied with the $395,000 settlement. They felt vindicated for all they had to put up with over the past few years. Schmidt and Guenther, who were terminated from their jobs after reporting the harassment, will now be listed as “resigned,” which may make it easier for them to find new employment.

Both women stated that they hope the settlement leads to changes in the Sheriff’s Office. Schmidt hoped that this would show women that they could “come forward and they will be heard, and just keep going until you are heard.” Guenther stated that she hoped that they “opened up doors at the Sheriff’s Office” and made them realize that there were problems that needed fixing. The Sheriff’s Office has received a taste of what can happen when women come forward with the help of a sexual harassment lawyer.

Experiences like Schmidt and Guenther’s happen all over this country. If you live in New York and experience sexual harassment in the workplace, don’t be afraid to come forward. Find an experienced New York sexual harassment lawyer to help you obtain relief.

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