Cumberland County officials have settled a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice for $1.1 million and an agreement to revise the county's personnel and training policies while it remains under court supervision for 18 months.
The lawsuit alleged that the director of the county's solid waste department subjected at least 10 women to unrelenting sexual harassment at a sorting facility and in secluded areas of the county's landfill between 2015 and 2018.
Michael Harvel, when he was director of the county's solid waste program, forcibly kissed, fondled and propositioned women at the department for sex, according to the women's accounts. The women included part-time recycling sorters, women court-ordered to perform community service and one full-time employee. In November 2017, one woman quit after she said Harvel threatened to rape her. Two women said they were pressured into providing sexual favors in return for employee benefits.
The lawsuit also alleged that former Cumberland County Mayor Kenneth Carey Jr. told the director of solid waste to "get rid of" a woman who filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2018. The director who, by then, had replaced Harvel, said she understood that to mean Carey wanted the woman fired, the lawsuit said.
"State and local governments are among our largest employers. It is important that they understand that the federal anti-discrimination laws also apply to them," said Delner Franklin-Thomas, district director of the Memphis District of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which investigated the women's complaints.
Harvel was indicted by a Cumberland County grand jury in February 2018 on two counts of sexual battery and one count each of assault and official misconduct. His trial date has been pushed back several times as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and a new trial date has not yet been set, according to court records.
Cumberland County Mayor Allen Foster said in a statement that many of the revisions to training and the personnel policy had already been made and noted the county's insurance coverage would cover most of the settlement costs, which included nearly $1.1 million to the victims and $25,000 in fees to the women's attorney, John Nisbet.
"The new Personnel and Policy Handbook currently in place spells out the processes needed to ensure individuals have multiple reporting avenues as well as the annual training each employee will receive," said the statement from Foster, who was elected after allegations came to light.
"These procedures are in place and annual employee training is already implemented," the statement said. "Cumberland County will continue to improve our policies and procedures as needed to provide a positive work environment for all."
The settlement includes no admission of misconduct by county officials.
The consent decree requires county officials to report all complaints of sexual harassment or related complaints of retaliation to federal prosecutors for the next 18 months and to provide reports every six months on the county's progress in meeting the terms of the settlement.
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