State Politics

How a little-known 1997 sexual harassment case may serve as a warning to the Senate

Florida’s historic Old Capitol building in Tallahassee, on Feb. 28, 2015.
Florida’s historic Old Capitol building in Tallahassee, on Feb. 28, 2015. Tampa Bay Times

There is only one recorded payment against the Florida Legislature for a sexual harassment claim, but that 20-year-old case could serve as a template if the Senate decides that allegations against Sen. Jack Latvala are legitimate.

Since 1992, Florida taxpayers have paid $11 million in 310 sexual harassment settlements —from nurses exposed to a hostile work environment in male prisons to overt sexual advances from state supervisors — but only one of those payments has been in a case directly involving the Legislature, according to data compiled by the Florida Department of Financial Services.

A court-ordered $165,000 payment went to a former staffer in the now-defunct Joint Legislative Management Committee, which oversaw House and Senate operations, and her lawyers in 1997. Linda Phelps, an assistant purchasing administrator for the committee, complained about unwanted sexual advances by her boss, Bobby Hinson, from 1992 to 1994, but “no one would believe me,” she told a federal court.

Phelps and Hinson continued to work together in the office that handled all legislative purchases until what she described as a “violent sexual assault” on June 30, 1994. After a late night of work and pizza, Phelps testified that when other staff had left, Hinson exposed himself, pushed her head down and tried to force her to perform oral sex. She hit him and managed to run away.

lindaphelps
Linda Phelps in her cubicle in 1997. Courtesy of Linda Phelps Tampa Bay Times file photo

“His words to me were, ‘I’m going to have you the way I want you’,” Phelps, now 68 and retired from the state since 2011 recalled Tuesday. “His lips were white. He had his shirt open. He tried to choke me as he held me down.”

Hinson denied it, and his supervisors testified that Phelps never complained to them. She sued under the federal Civil Rights Act and won. One of her lawyers was George Meros of the Tallahassee office of GrayRobinson.

Now, Meros has been hired to advise the Florida Senate as it grapples with how to handle a claim that Latvala, R-Clearwater, groped, verbally harassed and inappropriately touched an unnamed Senate staff member who, like Phelps, remained in her job during the time she alleges she was harassed.

The Senate has hired retired appellate Judge Ronald V. Swanson to serve as special master and conduct an investigation into the complaint, write a report about whether the allegations are reasonable, and make a recommendation to the Senate Rules Committee.

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The payment to Phelps is one of the 10 most costly settlements paid by the state over the last 25 years, according to the Division of Risk Management. The other large payments include $1.3 million against the Department of Corrections, where 28 nurses won a class action lawsuit in 2007 alleging hostile work environments in four male prisons; $487,500 given to corrections nurses in another case in 2012; and $354,000 against the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office following a lawsuit launched by a secretary who accused a lawyer of unwanted sexual advances toward her.

The data were compiled by the Department of Financial Services’ Division of Risk Management at the request of the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times and Associated Press. The division manages investigations and litigation relating to all federal civil rights claims against the state and its employees, including sexual harassment claims. In addition to the settlements, taxpayers pay for the state’s legal defense provided by either the Florida Attorney General’s Office, contract law firms or state agency attorneys.

Absent from the list of payments is $47,000 paid out by the Florida House in 1988 to a legislative analyst to keep her from filing a sexual harassment lawsuit against former state Rep. Fred Lippman, a Democrat from Broward. The case became public after a grand jury released details, and it resulted in a reprimand against Lippman.

The Florida Department of Corrections has the longest list of claims against it: 281 claims from 1996 to 2017 totaling more than $5.73 million.

The agency has a long history of relocating abusive officers instead of firing them, “so there are offenders that offend multiple times,” said Marie Mattox, a Tallahassee attorney who has handled numerous sexual harassment cases. According to the risk management data, Mattox won at least $646,000 in payouts from the state’s departments of corrections, health and transportation for her clients in the past 15 years.

Mattox said she receives 15 to 25 cases of sexual harassment each year that involve state and government employment, and 80 percent of them reach a settlement.

That didn’t happen with Phelps’ complaint. It was the only sexual harassment case against the Legislature to go to trial.

During the trial in June 1997, several women testified that Hinson had touched and propositioned them, told dirty jokes and showed racy pictures in the office, according to reporting by the Tampa Bay Times. Phelps testified that her boss kissed and grabbed her at the office, exposed himself while she was alone at her work station, called her on the office intercom and talked to her in sexually explicit terms.

She described how one night in June 1994, after several staffers had been working late and eating pizza, Phelps returned from straightening the kitchen when she was startled to find that everyone was gone — except Hinson.

“What are you doing here? Where is everybody?” she asked.

He started pushing her backward. He exposed himself, pulled her to a chair, pushed her head down “and tried to engage in oral sex,” she said. She hit him, then managed to get away and run to the bathroom, the Times reported. Phelps waited until she thought he had left, then ran to an elevator. He appeared and took the elevator with her. “It’ll be OK,” he told her on the way down.

The jury found that Phelps was subjected to unwelcome sexual advances and an abusive work environment and blamed Hinson, Phelps’ immediate supervisor, for the harassment, not the committee’s top staff or legislative leadership.

Although the case was 20 years ago, it may serve as a warning today for the Senate as it explores the sexual harassment claims while following a Senate rule that offers few specifics about how to proceed.

Key to Phelps’ claim was how much did management know and what did they do about it.

In 1994, Hinson was fired from the Joint Legislative Management Committee after Phelps made the allegations. While legislative leaders couldn’t prove what happened, they concluded based on interviews with several women that Hinson had fostered a hostile work environment. He later got jobs at two other state agencies with the help of glowing references from his supervisor at the joint committee, Pete Ratowski, who later was fired because of the references.

Phelps’ attorneys argued that legislative management was put on notice about Hinson in 1992 when an employee complained about him bothering her and Phelps. Fred Breeze, the committee’s executive director, testified that they weren’t aware of inappropriate behavior until after a number of women came forward in 1994. In the end, jurors did not find that Ratowski and Breeze knew or should have known about any unwelcome sexual behavior.

Phelps said she continued to come to work despite the harassment, “trusting that he wouldn’t do it again,” but she said she and others felt repeatedly ignored.

“It’s just like abuse,” she said. “They apologize and you just want things to be normal.”

She said she is saddened that sexual harassment continues to haunt women. “I suggest don’t let it go,” she said. “Never think it’s going to get any better.”

She said the ordeal “was a nightmare,” and she knew she risked losing her job for coming forward but, she added, “I would do it all over again. I would have to.”

The current Senate employee, whose identity has not been made public, has hired Tallahassee lawyer Tiffany Cruz to represent her in the Senate proceedings. Legal experts say she is likely also considering a lawsuit, perhaps as Phelps did 20 years ago, which could expose more secrets.

“They’ve got one big thing to worry about,” said Rick Johnson, a Tallahassee attorney who has also represented many sexual harassment victims. “A Senate employee already has hired Tiffany Cruz, and Tiffany is going to sue and when she sues there are going to be subpoenas and documents. They know that. They’ve got to know that.”

Miami Herald researcher Monika Leal contributed to this report.

Most expensive sexual harassment cases, 1992-2017

Name

Sum

Date

Paid by whom

What

Kathleen Rudolph

$1.3 million

7/23/2007

Dept. of Corrections

Class action filed by nurses

Melanie Beckford

$487,585.78

4/6/2012

Dept. of Corrections

Hostile work environment

Sherry Rossbach

$354,000

6/15/2001

Miami-Dade state attorney’s office

Hostile work environment, retaliation

Cynthia Yahner

$310,000

8/18/1998

Dept. of Corrections

Title VII, sexual harassment

Sharon C. Miller

$247,750

12/28/2011

Dept. of Corrections

Sexual harassment

Karen P. Yulkowski

$128,000

5/11/2000

Dept. of Children & Families

(2 cases) Sex discrimination, retaliation; sex discrimination, retaliation, hostile work environment

Gladys Ramsey

$212,500

6/15/1998, 6/30/1998

Dept. of Corrections

Sexual harassment, retaliation

Linda Majauskas

$212,500

4/26/1999

Dept. of Highway Safety & Motor Vehicles

Sex discrimination, retaliation

Stephen A. Emerson

$200,000

6/4/2009

Dept. of Law Enforcement

Sexual harassment, retaliatory discharge

Linda Phelps

$165,000

11/12/1997

Legislature

Sexual harassment

Source: Florida Division of Risk Management

Sexual harassment claims by agency, 1992-2017

Agency for Health Care Administration: $25,000, one claim in 2004

Agency for Persons with Disabilities: $7,000, one claim in 2001

Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services: $3,000, one claim, 2017

Department of Business and Professional Regulation: $221,000, five claims 1998-2014

Department of Children & Families: $826,000, 22 claims, 1997-2012

Department of Corrections: $5.73 million, 181 claims, 1996-2017

Department of Economic Opportunity: $152,000, two claims, 1999 and 2000

Department of Education: $20,000, one claim in 2011

Department of Elder Affairs: $135,000, two claims, 2006 and 2011

Department of Environmental Protection: $25,000, one claim in 2001

Department of Financial Services: $173,830, nine claims, 2000-2005

Department of Health: $453,650, 12 claims, 1995-2016

Department of Highway Safety: $222,500, two claims, 1999 and 2001

Department of Juvenile Justice: $443,213, nine claims, 1998-2011

Department of Law Enforcement: $218,000, two claims, 2009 and 2010

Department of Management Services: $180,000, two claims, 1995 and 1997

Department of Revenue: $18,250, three claims, 1999-2008

Department of Transportation: $631,500, 14 claims, 1995-2016

Department of Veterans’ Affairs: $75,500, two claims, 2008

Fish and Wildlife Conservation Agency: $152,500, two claims, 2001 and 2011

Florida A&M University: $92,500, three claims, 1999-2011

Florida Atlantic University: $15,000, one claim, 2003

Florida Commission on Offender Review: $100,000, two claims, 1999 and 2002

Florida Legislature: $165,000, one claim, 1997

Florida State University: $169,000, seven claims, 1993-2013

Public defenders: $50,000, one claim, 2000

State attorneys: $504,000, three claims, 2001 and 2009

State courts system: $60,000, two claims, 2002 and 2003

University of Central Florida: $30,000, one claim, 2010

University of Florida: $125,000, six claims, 1995-2001

University of South Florida: $79,510, five claims, 1999-2009

University of West Florida: $40,000, one claim, 1999

Source: Florida Division of Risk Management

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