The news of sexual harassment and assault allegations against movie moguls, elected officials and even celebrated architects continue to make headlines as part of a national “#MeToo” movement led by women to not be silent on the issue anymore.
But the issue is happening in local communities as well, including a Brookhaven Police officer who was fired four years ago after a sexual harassment complaint was filed against him by a woman officer under his supervision.
Tamara Holder, a former Fox News contributor who sued her employer for sexual assault, recently represented a woman in a federal lawsuit alleging an executive at Church’s Chicken, based in Sandy Springs, sexually harassed her for nearly a year before she quit.
Holder says that sexual harassment and sexual assault cases are often discussed in terms of settlements. But that focus misses the lasting impact on the victims, she said.
“Not only is it [that] money doesn’t compensate you for life, when a woman is out of work … it affects her ability to get a [new] job.” That creates a “vicious cycle” that needs more attention, Holder said.
Since the founding of Brookhaven in 2012, an open records search revealed, the city has settled one sexual harassment complaint: a 2014 case against a police officer who was later fired as a result.
A woman officer filed the formal complaint with the city in August 2014, alleging a male sergeant and her supervisor sent her several sexually explicit text messages. She also alleged the sergeant sexually harassed her between November 2014 and May 2014.
The city settled the complaint — which was never publicized — on May 12, 2015, for $10,000, which was covered by the city’s insurance, according to city documents. The officers who made the complaint resigned from her job in November 2014, according to documents obtained through an open records request.
In November 2014, the woman filed an official complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) also alleging sexual harassment on the job at the police department before finally agreeing to a settlement agreement with the city.
The $10,000 settlement meant the woman officer who filed the complaint would “withdraw or dismiss her claim and would enter into a general release and waiver of all claims against the city as well as all current and former officials and employees of the city,” states the minutes of the settlement agreement.
The complainant received $5,000 and her attorney received $5,000, according to the city’s minutes.
Chief Gary Yandura fired the male officer, saying in a Sept. 16, 2014, letter that the sergeant violated several departmental policies, including standards of conduct opportunity and the sexual harassment/discrimination policy.
“It is quite evident that you violated the allegations listed, which cannot be tolerated by a supervisory member of our police department,” Yandura wrote.
The male officer appealed his firing to the city manager and representatives from the Human Resources Department. At an Oct. 17, 2014, hearing, the male officer said text messages “could be easily manipulated” and denied sending the woman any inappropriate text messages. His firing was upheld by the city manager.
Following the case, all employees with the Brookhaven Police Department began mandatory annual training on how to prevent sexual harassment.
The current spotlight on sexual harassment has now spurred the city to mandate such training for all city employees.
This month, Brookhaven employees began their first preventing sexual harassment trainings that will continue through May. At a recent City Council work session, City Manager Christian Sigman explained that the current “national climate” led administrators to implement the mandatory training each year.
Former Brookhaven mayor J. Max Davis also got swept up in sexual harassment allegations in 2015 when the former city manager accused him of spraying an aerosol can at a female employee’s buttocks and alleged it was sexual harassment. He apologized for the incident, but the result was a breakdown in city transparency policies including the city’s attorney at the time trying to keep the sexual harassment complaint secret. Davis denied he meant to harm the woman.
In 2015, a Brookhaven city employee filed an EEOC complaint against Davis, alleging he threatened to fire her if she did not change her story to be in his favor on the sexual harassment allegations. The complaint was dismissed in 2016. Davis said the complaint was “spurious” and “baseless.”
Brookhaven, Dunwoody, Sandy Springs and Atlanta all have policies against sexual harassment on record that are provided to employees. In Dunwoody and Sandy Springs, no sexual harassment complaints or settlements have been filed in the past five years, according to city spokespersons and open records requests. The city of Atlanta did not respond to requests for comment.
Settlement as ‘the beginning’
Last year, a woman filed a federal lawsuit against Church’s Chicken alleging sexual harassment by an executive at its Sandy Springs headquarters. Church’s Chicken said it investigated the allegation and fired the person responsible.
The woman was represented by Holder, who was in the news last year for the $2.5 million settlement she reached following her own sexual assault complaint at Fox News. Holder and her client were able to reach an undisclosed settlement agreement with Church’s Chicken.
Holder said a mistake in discussing the issue of sexual harassment is focusing on the settlement amount and not what happens to the woman afterwards, especially if she was forced to leave her job anyway.
People need to ask, “Where is she now?” Holder said.
“People look and say, ‘You got $50,000, you got $50 million…What are you complaining about?’”
But, according to Holder, “It’s not over once the woman gets money. It’s really the beginning.”
The woman loses the income of the job and may have trouble getting another one. Victims often are left with mental health issues and lose health coverage with the job, she said.
“Personally, I’m without a job in TV because I spoke out,” she said.
Holder said men also need to take responsibility for their role in preventing sexual harassment.
“I think there needs to be a spotlight on men and what they can do,” she said. This can include not blowing off harassment as “flirting,” she said, or that complaints are lies or involve consensual situations.
“It’s not rocket science,” but it is a cultural decision, she said.
This story has been clarified to reflect that it was the former Brookhaven city manager, Marie Garrett, who accused former mayor J. Max Davis of sexual harassment for allegedly spraying a can of Lysol at a woman employee’s buttocks, and not the employee who was sprayed by Lysol that made the complaint.
–Dyana Bagby and John Ruch