Jessica Newman, an officer with the Vermillion Police Department, claims in court documents unsealed by federal Judge Larry Piersol earlier this month that she endured harassment and was subjected to a hostile work environment.
Piersol had temporarily sealed the complaint when it was filed in September. The judge rejected requests made by both Newman and the city of Vermillion to permanently seal the record.
Newman and the city of Vermillion settled the lawsuit last month. The settlement has not been released.
The complaint, filed Sept. 6, 2019 in U.S. District Court in Sioux Falls by Newman’s attorney, John Hughes of Sioux Falls, named the city, the Vermillion Police Department and Vermillion Police Chief Matt Betzen as defendants. The court papers demanded a jury trial.
The complaint states that Newman’s Title VII rights, her rights under the South Dakota Human Relations Act and her rights under South Dakota common law had been violated. Newman was seeking relief from the city, the Vermillion Police Department and Betzen for more than $75,000 for damages arising from loss of past and future income, benefits, inconvenience, mental anguish and stress.
She was also seeking punitive damages as allowed by law, payments of attorney’s fees and any other relief the court deemed just.
In response to questions sent by email by the Plain Talk, City Manager John Prescott said details of the settlement will become available 30 days after the filing of the final court documents. He didn’t have a firm timeline on the filing dates, but believed the filing may have occurred in late October or early November.
“The complaint document is only one part of the dialogue in resolving the matter. The complaint is the initial statement of the complainant at the beginning of the process. The Complaint does not include any statements from the Defendant as it is the complainant’s document,” Prescott stated. “Rather than engage in lengthy litigation, the City engaged in discussions with Ms. Newman and her attorney. The matter has been amicably resolved and a settlement agreement will be forthcoming.
“The City of Vermillion has always been and is committed to providing a workplace free of unlawful discrimination,” he added. “The Police Department has and continues to offer relevant training on items such as these.”
In May 2018, Newman filed a charge of discrimination with the South Dakota Division of Human Rights and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that the first instance of discrimination took place on June 12, 2013 and the last date of discrimination took place on May 1, 2018.
On June 6, 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C. issued a notice of a right to sue. That notice was received June 10, 2019.
Newman, who was hired as a patrol officer for the Vermillion Police Department on March 4, 2013, states in her complaint that officers and employees of the department, including administration and Betzen, verbally and physically harassed her and treated her differently because she was female.
The document also states she was subjected to a hostile work environment and was subjected to retaliatory discipline and reprisals when similarly situated male officers were not disciplined or retaliated against.
This work environment, according to the complaint, included increasing frequency of unlawful harassment and bullying words and behaviors all in retaliation of Newman complaining to her immediate supervisor and administration, including Betzen.
These actions, the complaint states, included withholding of terms and conditions of employment from Newman that are extended to similarly situated male patrol officers, all of which are linked to Newman’s protected status and protected conduct and all in violation of federal and state laws.
The complaint states that the Vermillion Police Department promoted and tolerated a work environment where Newman’s equipment was vandalized without consequences. It notes that shortly after her employment began, her department-issued citation book was vandalized. The document states that male patrol officers did not have their ticket books vandalized.
The complaint also states that male patrol officers regularly engaged in a continuous pattern of characterizing the role of patrol officer as “a man’s work” and not for women. It also listed several examples in which women were verbally and graphically depicted in an offensive manner.
The court document claims that the Vermillion Police Department promoted and tolerated a work environment where male patrol officers contrived and circulated rumors and gossip that good working relationships between Newman and her sergeant supervisors must be the result of sexual favors in exchange for preferential treatment and the police administration investigated her on this allegation.
The complaint states that rather than takes steps to investigate male patrol officers who were spreading rumors, the department opened an investigation into the conduct of Newman which resulted in enhancing the personal and professional damage she received as a result of the rumors and gossip.
The court document states that the conduct of male patrol officers, administration and Betzen violated the policy manual of Vermillion’s police department. It also claims that the police department’s promotion process violates its own policies and utilizes subjective criteria rather than objective criteria in the selection department that has a disparate impact on the promotion success of female patrol officers.
The complaint notes that on Nov. 2, 2015 and Aug. 3, 2016, Newman was denied promotion to sergeant with the promotion awarded to a male officer each time. It also claims that the department elevated male patrol officers for recognition and reward while ignoring Newman’s equal or greater contributions, even for the same conduct.
The court documents cites instances in which Newman was assigned tasks not given to male officers because of her sex, notes that she was treated differently than male officers with respect to uniforms, and stated that she was the subject of a collusive shift-bidding effort to preclude her from receiving her desired shifts.
Other major claims made in the complaint include unequal changing and locker room facilities that discriminate against female officers, Newman being denied advancement on the basis of sex and removal of objective promotion criteria and Newman being subjected to unlawful retaliation for her efforts to report and correct discrimination.
Newman remains with the department, where she is the only female patrol officer. Since she was hired in 2013, she has earned associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, and certification as a crisis intervention officer and instructor, high threat engagement instructor and a certified National Rifle Association handgun instructor.