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Sexual Harassment and Workplace Affairs Often Go Together

Inter office affairs are generally fraught with risks, and commonly lead to sexual harassment claims. They are especially dangerous when they take place between an employee and her supervisor. A recent case evaluated the situation where a female prison employee was engaged in an affair with a male companion and she alleged that she was treated more harshly when the affair was discovered than the male.

In 2007, Connie Orton-Bell was hired as a substance abuse counselor for a contractor at the Pendleton Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Pendleton, Indiana. The following year the Indiana Department of Corrections hired her as a counselor and she continued working as a counselor at Pendleton.

Orton-Bell said in court documents that the atmosphere at the maximum-security Pendleton Correctional facility was saturated with sex from its leaders on down. The prison superintendent when Orton-Bell started working at Pendleton in 2008 was fired for having an affair with a staffer from the prison infirmary, court records said.

In 2010, Orton-Bell discovered that night shift employees had been having sex on her desk. The internal affairs investigator allegedly suggested she simply wash off her desk every day.

That was about the same time officials learned that Orton-Bell was having an affair with Maj. Joe Ditmer, who was in charge of custody at Pendleton. Both were initially suspended and then were fired on April 8, 2010.

Further, in addition to being terminated she was also subjected to constant ogling and sexual comments. These included comments by male employees who watched as female employees underwent their daily pat-downs and made sexual comments.

Both appealed their terminations to the State Employees' Appeals Commission, and Ditmer, a 25-year veteran of the Department of Correction, was allowed to keep his benefits and pension. Orton-Bell's appeal was denied and in court records she said she even had trouble collecting unemployment benefits.

The appeals court's three-judge panel found that the "unending barrage of sexually charged comments" made the work environment hostile, as Orton-Bell claimed, and found that the state discriminated against her by treating her differently than Ditmer.

"They were certainly treated differently," the court said, adding that the Department of Correction "fails to provide any reason it did not offer Orton-Bell the same settlement terms it gave Ditmer."

However, the panel denied her claim that she had been fired and treated differently in retaliation to her complaints because she was female. Specifically with regard to the allegations that co-workers were having sex on her desk, the court said that her desk was not used because she was a female, but rather due to the fact that her office had curtains and could be locked. Since it had nothing to do with her gender, she could not claim harassment based on sex.

The takeaway: To succeed on a gender discrimination claim, you must show that the adverse employment actions were taken against you because of your gender, and that there was a hostile work environment caused by gender-based actions.
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