Deadline set in sexual harassment case |

Deadline set in sexual harassment case

by Sharon Carter

A deadline has been set in a federal sexual harassment case against Douglas County and the East Fork Fire and Paramedic districts.

For the past 18 months, attorneys for the county and plaintiffs, Frances Macias and Marcea Vandermeer, have fired off salvos of practice shots. By Oct. 23, they must either settle the lawsuit or be ready to take careful aim each other before a jury.

At issue are allegations that in 1995 and 1996, former deputy fire chief Don Stangle, then of the East Fork Paramedic District, created a hostile work environment for women who worked in the district’s office by telling off-color stories, touching them inappropriately and making sexually suggestive remarks. The allegations surfaced in July of last year, on the same day Stangle received a 20-year service award during a Douglas County Commission meeting. Stangle was then put on administrative leave and has since retired.

In naming Douglas County as a defendant, the lawsuit claimed the county had a duty to “create and maintain a workplace free of hostile sexuality,” and was negligent because it was aware of alleged previous incidents involving the deputy chief.

Although the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reviewed the case and passed it on to federal court in Reno, this past March the county’s special attorney Stephen Balkenbush of Reno asked Senior U.S. District Judge Edward C. Reed Jr. to bypass a requested jury trial and issue a summary judgment in the case – in effect, Balkenbush asked Reed to rule the women had no genuine issues and the defendants should prevail as a matter of law.

Balkenbush also argued that the employer, the paramedic district, was responsible and not Douglas County.

Attorneys Mark Mausert of Reno and Loren Graham of Stateline, who represent Macias and Vandermeer, filed a counter argument a month later.

n Women have case. Balkenbush did not respond by his May deadline. And in July, Reed ruled the women had a case. Reed wrote that Douglas County, as well as its agents (the now recombined East Fork Fire and Paramedic districts), could be held liable if a jury determines Stangle’s alleged conduct created a hostile environment.

“The essence of our case survived,” Mark Mausert said Thursday. “Basically, we won the summary judgment question. Our primary issue has always been that a hostile work environment existed. We’re proceeding to trial.”

Although the women originally asked for $4 million in damages, Mausert said the verdict and any monetary awards would be up to the jury.

The suit seeks $1 million in compensatory damages and an equal amount in punitive damages for each plaintiff, as well as more than $20,000 on the negligence claim.

“We’re trying to settle (out of court), it’s easier on everyone than going to trial,” Mausert said.

Reed also dismissed a claim that Macias, who has been employed by the district since 1990, had to accommodate the alleged behavior or lose her secretarial job. Reed retained a claim made by Vandermeer, who alleged she was wrongly fired while still on probation in her clerk’s job “in retaliation for being opposed to the sexual harassing statements and conduct of Stangle.”

In his response, Balkenbush asserted that Macias customarily circulated dirty jokes around the office, discussed her personal life and carried an electronic keychain which played vulgar recorded messages. He also said that Vandermeer had given Stangle a gift of men’s cologne and had called his hotel room to invite him out for drinks when the two were in Sacramento.

n Falsified time cards. Balkenbush also defended Vandermeer’s termination, alleging she was discovered to have falsified time cards.

This is the third sexual harassment case involving Douglas County agencies in the past few years and the second involving a county fire district.

In February 1995, an all-male federal court jury in Reno awarded Barbara Gerland $300,000 in her lawsuit against the Tahoe-Douglas Fire Protection District. Gerland, who was also represented by Mausert, sued on grounds of gender bias and sexual harassment, claiming the district amounted to an exclusive “boys’ club” that subjected her to pornographic movies and magazines, physical humiliation and derogatory comments while she was a firefighting recruit at the Round Hill station in Stateline. That same month, the county’s airport manager Dwight Briggs was fired for sexually harassing a secretary and disobeying orders to leave her alone.

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