Malone staffer accuses legal counsel for V.I. Legislature of sexual harassment
Published: March 22, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - A staff member for Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone has filed a lawsuit claiming an attorney in the V.I. Legislature sexually harassed her for a number of years while the Legislature failed to properly investigate her claims of misconduct.
Shanika Garnett, represented by St. Thomas attorney Karin Bentz, filed the lawsuit March 8 in District Court on St. Thomas.
Named as defendants are the V.I. Legislature, former executive director Pamela Richards Samuel, former legal counsel Trudy Fenster, former Senate President Ronald Russell and legal counsel Augustin Ayala.
The complaint alleges a pattern of harassment, intimidation and retaliation on the part of the defendants that spanned five years and three Senate presidents - Adlah Donastorg Jr., Louis Hill and Russell.
According to the lawsuit, Malone hired Garnett in 2003.
Starting in 2007, Ayala began to engage in "hostile, demeaning and sexually abusive conduct such that Plaintiff's working conditions were significantly altered," according to Garnett's complaint.
Garnett accuses Ayala of propositioning her for sex; offering to pay Garnett's bills in exchange for sleeping with him; leaving "inappropriate and demeaning" phone messages for Garnett on her work phone during work hours; "leaning into" Garnett inappropriately; and making other inappropriate remarks to Garnett.
Garnett responded by telling Ayala "that his unwelcome sexual advances were 'creepy' because he was old enough to be her father," the lawsuit states.
Ayala, in turn, retaliated against Garnett by drafting slipshod bills that came out of Malone's office, according to the lawsuit. At least one of these bills was vetoed by the governor in 2012 "for poor drafting" and Garnett was blamed, leading to a confrontation between Garnett and Malone, the lawsuit alleges.
Malone, who is president of the 30th Legislature, declined to comment for this story, saying neither he nor the new executive director of the Legislature had been served with the lawsuit.
After a Daily News reporter emailed Malone the documents, which are publicly available via the District Court's online records database, the senator said he was unable to open them and again said he would not comment on pending litigation.
He referred questions to Monica Howard, who is the current legal counsel for the Legislature. Howard did not return a call for this story.
Samuel also said she had not yet been served with the lawsuit and declined to comment for this story.
Contacted in person on Tuesday, Ayala declined to comment on the lawsuit or its allegations.
Donastorg, Hill and Fenster either did not return calls or could not be reached for this story.
Russell said he had not yet seen what Garnett filed, but he defended his response to the allegations when she brought them to his attention.
"It was brought to our attention, and we attempted to address it," Russell said. "We addressed it as best as we could. She has her right to go to court."
After first encountering Ayala's advances, Garnett complained to Donastorg, the Senate president at the time, then to Donastorg's successor, Hill, the lawsuit states. However, the behavior continued, and no one investigated Garnett's claims, according to the lawsuit.
"In fact there was no investigation," the complaint states. "Plaintiff is informed and believes that the Defendant Legislature never took her complaint seriously."
The lawsuit also takes issue with the Legislature's internal policy for dealing with sexual harassment.
"Plaintiff believes and thereon alleges that Defendant Legislature has a totally ineffective sexual harassment policy, and that Defendant Legislature has an ineffective way of disseminating said policy, such that employees charged with the responsibility of responding to sexual harassment complaints do not know how to respond appropriately," the lawsuit states.
Exhibits submitted with the complaint show that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in March 2012 found that Garnett's case amounted to a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Specifically, Garnett was subject to discrimination and retaliation, and the Legislature "actively responded" in a discriminatory pattern, the EEOC found.
However, Garnett claims that Fenster and Samuel met with her last March and told her that her sexual harassment complaint was "baseless and without merit."
The lawsuit claims that Fenster and Samuel intentionally misrepresented the determination of the EEOC to deter Garnett from pursuing the case further.
The EEOC referred its finding to the U.S. Justice Department for further review, according to documents attached to the lawsuit. The Justice Department decided in December that it would not file suit in the case, opening a 90-day window in which Garnett was allowed to pursue her own lawsuit, which she did.
The lawsuit levies 12 charges against the defendants, including sexual harassment; violations of the V.I. Sexual Harassment Act; negligent supervision and training; civil conspiracy; intentional infliction of emotional distress; retaliation; and assault.
Garnett says she suffered "severe humiliation, mental anguish, and emotional and physical distress" because of the mistreatment. She is seeking compensatory, consequential and punitive damages, according to the lawsuit.
Garnett also is asking the court for an injunction requiring the Legislature to conduct annual sexual harassment training for all employees, including senators.
Bentz, Garnett's attorney, also declined to comment for this article.
- Contact reporter Lou Mattei at 714-9124 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.