SEPTA faces retaliatory discharge claim over firing of former police officer

Jon Campisi Nov. 7, 2011, 3:05pm

A former transit police officer with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority is suing the agency in federal court, alleging she was terminated in retaliation for reporting incidents of pervasive sexual harassment.

In her federal lawsuit, which was filed Nov. 2 at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania by Philadelphia attorney Olugbenga O. Abiona, former SEPTA Police Sgt. Elizabeth M. Wilson alleges that she was subjected to on-the-job harassment and a hostile work environment, in part because a fellow sergeant and her direct superior allegedly had a thing against women.

Aside from SEPTA, the defendants named in the lawsuit are SEPTA police Sgt. Steven Rocher, police Lt. Robert Wright and SEPTA Police Chief Richard Evans.

The alleged harassment included Rocher asking Wilson for the key to the women’s locker room, claiming that the men’s locker room was “nasty,” the lawsuit states.

Wilson informed Rocher that she would be uncomfortable sharing a locker room with men such as Rocher, the suit claims.

On April 21, 2010, Wilson filed an internal complaint of harassment and hostile work environment with SEPTA officials. In her internal complaint, Wilson also alleged that Rocher once threatened to shoot her, the lawsuit states.

As part of their investigation, SEPTA officials interviewed Lt. Wright, who, following the interview, relocated Wilson’s locker from the supervisor’s office to the men’s locker room, an act the lawsuit claims was done in retaliation for Wilson’s complaint against Rocher, who the lawsuit states was friendly with Wright.

About a week after filing her internal complaint, Wilson again complained to SEPTA officials, this time alleging that Wright retaliated against her following her claims. SEPTA, however, failed to discipline Wright and Rocher, both for the retaliation claims, and the underlying alleged sexual harassment claims.

The lawsuit claims that Rocher has a history of sexual harassment and domestic violence of which SEPTA was aware, but failed to do anything about.

Prior to Wilson’s alleged harassment, the suit claims, Rocher engaged in sexual harassment against another female police officer, in which the sergeant posted “outrageously sexually explicit and demeaning pictures” of the woman at SEPTA police headquarters.

The lawsuit also claims that SEPTA was aware of Rocher’s history of assaulting his wife, but failed to take any disciplinary actions against the man.

In mid May 2010, Chief Evans suspended Wilson for five days, allegedly for not reporting to work two hours prior to her scheduled shift on a day she was supposedly asked to report earlier than her normal reporting time; Wilson denies being told she needed to show up early.

Wilson claims that the suspension was also retaliatory in nature.

In mid June, Wilson went out on a leave of absence because of “serious health and medical conditions,” the lawsuit states. Her absence was protected under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, she claims.

Wilson was fired on June 21, 2010.

“Plaintiff asserts that the harassment by the Defendants because of Plaintiff’s gender was pervasive and regular,” the lawsuit states. “Plaintiff was detrimentally affected because the harassment caused her stress, emotional distress, migraine headaches, insomnia, anxiety and fear, which adversely affected her work. Defendants subjected Plaintiff to retaliatory disciplinary action because she engaged in protected activities under federal and state statutes.”

The lawsuit contains counts of gender discrimination, retaliation and civil rights violations.

Wilson seeks back pay, front pay, interest, costs of the suit, punitive damages, compensatory damages exceeding $100,000 and other court relief.

A jury trial has been demanded.

The federal case number is 2:11-cv-06872-WY.

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