Male officers file harassment suit

Arundel superiors failed to halt female officer, they argue

June 27, 2008|By Nicole Fuller and Karen Shih | Nicole Fuller and Karen Shih,Sun reporters

The Anne Arundel County police officer called in sick to work so she could follow a colleague in her car as he responded to service calls, according to court documents. She allegedly loitered around his home and told his wife they were having an affair.

Officer Michael T. Morningstar, a four-time Eastern District Officer of the Year, said that he complained to his superiors that Officer Kathleen P. Sauerhoff was harassing him and was answered with poor evaluations, a demotion and ridicule from his boss and co-workers, who called her his "stalker." An officer who stood up for him, Michael Harper, was also punished, they claim.

They have filed a $4 million lawsuit in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court alleging that over a three-year period they suffered sexual harassment, discrimination, a hostile work environment and retaliation at the hands of their colleagues and superiors.

"I think that in the department, there was a disbelief that a man could be sexually harassed by a woman, and a failure to act on it by the department," said Roy L. Mason, an attorney representing the two officers. "The law is the law."

A spokesman for the Police Department referred all questions to County Attorney Jonathan A. Hodgson.

"I will confirm that the suit has been filed, and we believe we have substantial defenses to it," said Hodgson, who would not elaborate. Sauerhoff, who is a corporal and still works for the department, could not be reached yesterday. Her mother, who said she does not have an attorney, said, "She's been to hell and back" because of the allegations.

Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that the department violated federal law in the case and recommended that the county pay Morningstar $300,000 and Harper $25,000. The county declined.

The lawsuit, filed last month, names former Police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan and current Chief James Teare Sr. as defendants, as well as David Pressley, the Eastern District commander, and direct supervisors of the two men, George Starkey, James Standiford and Steven Thomas.

It says that the harassment began in December 2004 when Sauerhoff began making unwanted sexual advances toward Morningstar. He told her he was "happily married," according to the lawsuit, but she persisted and told Morningstar's wife that they were having an affair.

He asked Starkey in a Feb. 23, 2005, meeting to do something about the situation. Starkey warned Sauerhoff to leave him alone, the suit alleges, but she continued to call Morningstar's cell phone, at one point leaving a voice mail that said, "If you don't answer, I will leave you messages to use up all 2,000 of your minutes you get a month."

She continued, according to the complaint, to follow Morningstar to gas pumps and "stare him down," respond to calls in Morningstar's assigned patrol area, which was outside hers, and stand outside his home. The stress caused Morningstar and his wife to separate, the suit says, but they have since reunited.

But the lawsuit says that Sauerhoff's behavior broadened "to include lavish emotional displays in front of civilians, who called for help from" the county police, including "shouting and crying at Morningstar and chasing his vehicle in front of complainants."

When Morningstar, now a nine-year veteran, continued to complain, the lawsuit alleges, his supervisors assigned him to traffic duty and gave him a poor performance review.

Harper, a friend of Morningstar's, questioned why more wasn't being done to alleviate the harassment, and he became a target, according to the suit. Harper, a 10-year-veteran on the force who is now a corporal, was honored last month for rescuing a teenager from a piece of ice in the Little Magothy River.

By early 2005, Harper requested a transfer and several days later received a letter from Standiford that said he was "a disgruntled employee, morale killer, and miserable." Though the harassment has ceased, the careers of the officers "have completely stalled," the lawsuit says.

Officer O'Brien Atkinson, president of the county police union, said it provided initial counsel for Morningstar and found an outside attorney for Sauerhoff when the accusations first surfaced. The union has not been highly involved because it is an interdepartmental problem, not a union issue, he said.

"I don't think that anyone knows the entire story," Atkinson said. "The best we can hope for is that the judicial process determines what, if any, culpability there may be. Hopefully, problems like this can be avoided in the future."

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

karen.shih@baltsun.com

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