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A federal judge ruled Thursday that three Faulkner County employees cannot be legally sued in their individual capacities in a case alleging sexual harassment by the director of the county's Office of Emergency Management.

Ruling in U.S. District Court in Little Rock, Judge James Moody Jr. dismissed federal and state civil-rights claims against the director, Shelia Bellott; County Judge Jim Baker; and county Administrator Tom Anderson. The three remain defendants in their official capacities along with the county itself.

In the ruling, Moody wrote that claims under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act "are applicable to employers, not to individuals." He added, "Likewise, supervisors do not meet the definition of an 'employer'" under the Arkansas Civil Rights Act of 1993.

Two women who formerly worked under Bellott's direction, Julie Woodward and Mary Johnson, had filed the claims of sex discrimination and retaliation. Woodward and Johnson have since resigned, as has a third employee.

The resignations have left Bellott with just one employee, Eric DuVall. All four employees had filed complaints against Bellott with the county, and two sued.

The county's civil attorney, David Hogue, conducted an investigation of those complaints last year and said he had recommended that Baker fire Bellott. The county judge declined. The findings of a second investigation, by former Prosecuting Attorney Cody Hiland, have not been publicly disclosed.

Instead of dismissal, the county judge has ordered Bellott since mid-June to work in the county's old courthouse in downtown Conway, about 5 miles from Emergency Management offices where those employees she supervises work.

Baker also had ordered Bellott to communicate by phone with only one employee, but that worker also has resigned, meaning she now must talk by phone with DuVall at times, Hogue said Thursday.

Hogue said job postings for the open positions will end soon and the county then can hire new employees for the office. The county has received applications, he said.

Complaints filed with the county accuse Bellott of various infractions, including harassment, recurring tardiness, absenteeism and falsifying time cards. The complaints indicated that the employees were upset that Bellott allegedly talked about her sex life in sometimes graphic terms during work.

In court documents, the plaintiffs have said Bellott, "with the apparent authority of Defendants Anderson and Baker, has continued to place tedious and harassing requirements on the Plaintiffs in retaliation [for] their written complaints."

The lawsuit is set for a jury trial starting Nov. 18.

Jason Owens, an attorney with the law firm defending the county and the employees, said Thursday that while the claims against Bellott, Baker and Anderson in their official capacities "remain for further resolution, those claims are legally identical and redundant to the ... [claims] against Faulkner County."

"The courts have consistently and uniformly ruled that a claim against a County official or employee, in his or her official capacity, is, in reality and in practical effect, simply a claim against the County itself. In essence, then, the only remaining Defendant is Faulkner County," Owens said in an email.

Hogue said that, speaking on behalf of the county judge's office, "They're pleased with the personal dismissal and honestly not surprised."

In a text message, the plaintiffs' attorney, Tom Mickel, said Moody's ruling "did not end the suit and we will continue prosecuting it with the remaining defendants."

State Desk on 02/02/2018

Print Headline: Faulkner County execs out of lawsuit; Sex-harassment case in U.S. court

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