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City office worker sues boss, claims sexual harassment

City office worker sues boss, claims sexual harassment

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SIOUX CITY | Not long after he found out about her impending divorce in 2000, Paul Eckert, then the assistant Sioux City manager, called Brittany Scott into a City Hall conference room.

That's among allegations Scott, an administrative assistant in the city clerk's office at the time, levels in a lawsuit filed Tuesday against Eckert and the city. The civil action says the conversation that day centered on her personal life and divorce.

It was the beginning, Scott says in the suit, of roughly four years of unprofessional emails and unwelcome attempts by Eckert to get her to go out on dates and have an affair with him.

Scott said the sexual harassment ended shortly after two City Council members investigating a separate sexual harassment allegation against Eckert questioned her. Scott alleges that after that conversation, Eckert, who was hired as city manager in March 2002, has continually retaliated by engineering her transfer to another department, a demotion and the reduction of her position to part time, a move that cost Scott her health insurance and other benefits.

"(Eckert) is vindictive, retaliatory and a master manipulator who covers up his misconduct very effectively," Scott said in a complaint filed in January with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, a precursory step to the filing of the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Sioux City.

Eckert denied the allegations.

"I'm highly dedicated to our community, this council and the city staff," Eckert said. "These retaliation charges are baseless, and we will resist them vigorously."

Scott, now a part-time administrative secretary in the city's Field Services Division, is seeking an unspecified amount of punitive damages from Eckert and the city as well as damages to reimburse her for lost wages and benefits, the cost of past and future counseling and for emotional distress.

Scott is also asking that Eckert be fired, a scenario that currently appears unlikely.

"Paul will continue his duties as city manager. We're expecting him to manage the city. ... To my knowledge, no council member has asked him to resign," said Mayor Bob Scott, who is not related to Brittany Scott. "It will be decided in court. There's two sides to every story."

Brittany Scott's attorney, Stan Munger, of Sioux City, declined to comment on details of the case.

The lawsuit alleges that despite sexual harassment allegations against Eckert made by Scott and other female city workers, the city has failed to investigate and follow its own sexual harassment policies.

"Consequently, city has, in effect, with Eckert as city manager, created and enforced since 2000 an unwritten policy of sexual harassment tolerance and encouragement designed to protect harassers in general and Eckert in particular," the suit says.

The lawsuit claims that the city has made it hard for alleged victims to prove harassment patterns because it does not keep adequate records of complaints and investigations.

From 2000 to about March 23, 2004, Scott said in the suit, Eckert created a sexually hostile work environment by:

-- Sending personal and unprofessional emails that included sexual innuendos in an attempt to pursue a private affair.

-- Making Scott uncomfortable by repeatedly showing up in the city's fitness room when she was working out alone.

-- Touching and rubbing Scott's arms and shoulders and commenting on her physical appearance.

-- Attempting to manipulate Scott into a date with him.

Scott said the behavior stopped in March 2004, when then-council members Dave Ferris and Karen Van De Steeg asked her about Eckert's conduct as they investigated a separate sexual harassment claim made against him by another female city worker.

Van De Steeg declined to comment without first talking to the city's attorney and did not return a message left later. Ferris also did not immediately return a message.

Later that year, Scott said, Eckert reduced her job responsibilities, then spread untrue sexual rumors about her.

Scott said she sought mental health counseling because of the alleged retaliation and was diagnosed with depression. Her counselor recommended she take a leave from work, which Scott did in early 2006.

Once Scott returned from her leave, she was informed her job was being reduced to a part-time position, and she was then transferred to a full-time administrative assistant position at the city's Public Works/Field Services headquarters at 1723 18th St. Scott alleged that Eckert was behind the transfer in order to isolate her from other City Hall workers.

Scott was demoted to administrative secretary in 2008 and her salary was frozen, and later that year, when Eckert visited the Field Services building, Scott said, he ordered that her office there be cleared out by the end of that day and that she would share a work station with two part-time employees.

In 2011, Scott's job as administrative secretary was reduced to part time, a budget-cutting decision made by Eckert and protested by then-Public Works Director Chris Payer, who had offered to fund Scott's position from various funding sources. Eckert rejected the proposal, the lawsuit says.

Scott interviewed for a full-time administrative assistant position in the city engineer's office last summer, but, the suit claims, Eckert directed the job be given to another candidate who had less experience than Scott.

According to the lawsuit, Bob Scott and Councilwoman Rhonda Capron advised Brittany Scott to file the Civil Rights Commission complaint earlier this year when she told them about Eckert's alleged discrimination and retaliation.

Capron referred questions to City Attorney Nicole Jensen-Harris, who released the following statement: "We have received a copy of Ms. Scott's lawsuit against the City and Paul Eckert. We believe the allegations are without legal merit and will be vigorously defended in a court of law and not the press. We are, however, confident that a trier of fact will find that neither the City nor Mr. Eckert acted unlawfully or improperly."

Journal staff writer Lynn Zerschling contributed to this report.

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