Lawyer: Hyattsville PD 'Ripe for Abuse'
Former police officer's lawyer says city lacks the institutional ability to put a stop to sexual harassment.
An attorney for a former Hyattsville city police officer suing the city over claims of rampant workplace sexual harassment in the police department said that the lawsuit allegations paint a picture of a workplace poisoned by demeaning sexual bigotry.
"I think this is outrageous, the type of workplace conditions that exist in Hyattsville," said Michael Amster, lawyer for Marsha Lessard, the former police officer bringing suit against the city. "Hyattsville in particular is a situation that's just ripe for abuse…they don't have the professional institutions that are doing the necessary checks and balances to prevent or put a stop to these behaviors."
The Right to Sue
Lessard, a city police officer from 2005 through 2009, filed a federal lawsuit against the city last month for violations of sexual harassment, sexual discrimination and whistleblower retaliation laws stemming from her employment with the Hyattsville City Police Department. At the time, Lessard was known as Marsha Mutchler.
Amster said Lessard waited until 2012 to file a lawsuit against the city because she was, by law, unable to bring a workplace sexual harassment lawsuit in federal court until she had exhausted all other administrative remedies.
Amster said that Lessard repeatedly complained to superiors about frequent sexual harassment in the city police department almost immediately after being hired.
Lessard filed charges with the Prince George's County Human Rights Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in spring of 2009.
According to Amster, the Prince George's County Department of Human Rights investigated the allegations but determined that the statute of limitations had expired.
But the EEOC investigation was apparently ongoing, according to Amster. It was only this past June that Lessard obtained a letter from the EEOC board stating that investigation had closed, giving her the right to sue for damages.
Policy, Practice and Police
Hyattsville city officials have not commented on Lessard's specific allegations. But the Hyattsville communications office released a statement Thursday that said the city maintains a non-discrimination policy to which all employees are expected to adhere.
That policy prohibits sexual jokes and innuendo, verbal abuse, the display of sexually suggestive pictures or objects in the workplace and inappropriate, unwanted physical contact.
Abby Sandel, communications director for the city of Hyattsville, said that the last time all city employees were required to attend sexual harassment avoidance training was in the spring of 2009.
Amster said he has witnesses who can corroborate elements of Lessard's lawsuit.
Lessard's complaint alleges that a near constant atmosphere of sexual harassment interfered with her duties and stymied her career development. According to Amster, Lessard was ultimately released from her job with the police department in 2009 after she was found unable to cope with the stress of the workplace.
Amster said that it was the work environment that caused Lessard's stress, not the job. The lawsuit claims that Lessard now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of her experience.
Included among Lessard's allegations are charges that Pat O'Hagan, currently a sergeant on the city police force and president of the Hyattsville FOP lodge, sexually assaulted her during an August 2007 FOP national conference in Louisville, KY.
Phone calls to national, state and local FOP offices were not returned.
Lessard Honored While Alleging Humiliation
Lessard was hired by the city police department a month after graduating from the Prince George's County police academy in 2005.
In 2006, she was awarded the city police department's Silver Medal and Life Saving Award when her quick actions while off duty in June 2005 helped save the life of a woman who had been stabbed.
In 2008, Lessard was the recipient of a Command Recognition award from the city police department for "outstanding work" in the previous year.
Amster said that Lessard has not worked in law enforcement since her time in Hyattsville. She now lives in rural Virginia with her husband, an Army Green Beret.