Workplace harassment claims have cost some of the biggest names in media and entertainment their careers.
But the claims can also carry big financial costs for taxpayers.
The city of Jacksonville now plans to shell out nearly a half-million dollars to settle two workplace discrimination cases, rather than fight them in court.
Labor law attorney Tad Delegal, who brought one of the complaints, says large settlements aren’t just a reward to victims – they force employers to reevaluate how they respond to harassment allegations.
In the case of his client Deborah Jones, Delegal said, “she was subjected to a lot of workplace terror."
According to court documents, Jones was humiliated and belittled by her supervisor -- a psychiatrist at the Duval County Jail, Dr. Tan Cao. Tao once called the 60-something woman an “old, demented, worthless whore.” On another occasion, as employees discussed a recent rape outside the jail, he told Jones she needn't fear being raped because she was old and ugly.
“It was egregious,” Delegal said. “According to her coworkers, it caused her to constantly have crying spells. She was subjected to very harsh language.”
If the abuse had ended with Cao, Delegal said, Jones might not have filed a lawsuit. But according to court documents and employment records, her complaints were disregarded, even though it was clear to supervisors that Cao’s comments “crossed a line.”
The first time Jones complained, Cao's supervisor Chief of Health Services Alvaro Diaz, he chastised Jones and advised her to “adapt” to make more of an effort to work with Cao. The second time she complained, Diaz suspended her for a week.
Soon after, Diaz stopped scheduling her entirely – effectively firing her.
Records show Diaz realized that Cao’s behavior posed a liability for the city, however. According to employment notes from the city, Diaz told Cao he “should be careful as he may expose the agency to litigation. He continued by stating the employee has enough material for a lawsuit.”
Sheriff Mike Williams declined to comment on the case. However, he did not reappoint Diaz when he was elected. Neither Diaz nor Cao work for JSO any longer.
Delegal said workplace harassment law is actually fairly forgiving of bad behavior, because it allows an employer ample opportunity to investigate and correct it.
“You can’t file a claim unless you’ve first gone to employer and asked the employer to resolve the situation,” he says. “In this case, my client did on two different occasions. And on each occasion, she was retaliated against.”
City attorneys have agreed to settle Jones’ case for $275,000. And last week, the city agreed to settle a second, unrelated discrimination case for $190,000. Both deals must be approved by the city council before they are finalized.
Delegal said he hopes the litigation – and the cost of settling it -- serves as a reminder that the city, and all employers, need to properly investigate harassment claims.
“I think it is important,” Delegal said of the size of the settlement. “The big lesson is treat that situation seriously. If someone comes to you -- do something about it.”