A jury has ruled that a male officer at the state prison in Elliott County sexually harassed four female guards and awarded $1.6 million to the women.
The jury ruled Friday in a lawsuit the four filed in September 2014 against Sgt. Stephen Harper; Joseph Meko, warden at the Little Sandy Correctional Complex; and the Kentucky Department of Corrections.
The allegations in the lawsuit included that Harper masturbated where one woman could see him, touched female staffers’ breasts and buttocks, exposed himself to them, rubbed against them, tried to force them to touch him and attempted to rape one.
“This was very egregious conduct,” said Joe F. Childers, a Lexington attorney who represented two of the women. “It’s incredible that the Department of Corrections would let that happen.”
The lawsuit argued that the improper conduct violated the women’s civil rights, constituted assault and created a hostile work environment. It alleged that Meko failed to properly investigate complaints of harassment against Harper and failed to stop the improper behavior.
Corrections Commissioner Rodney Ballard said Monday that he disagreed with the verdict.
“I have a lot of respect for the jury system — but sometimes juries get it wrong,” Ballard said. “We believe that’s what happened here, and we are evaluating all our legal options for an appeal.”
The plaintiffs in the case were Colleen Payton and Lisa Suliman, represented by Childers and attorney Bethany Baxter; and Donna Adkins and Jennifer Dennis, represented by Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf.
Three of the plaintiffs left the prison before the lawsuit went to trial, but Payton continues to work there, Childers said.
The women accepted a confidential settlement with Harper before the trial started. He continues to work at the prison and has not been disciplined as a result of any of the sexual harassment complaints, Childers said.
The $1.6 million verdict was against the Department of Corrections.
The jury awarded each woman $400,000, which was the entire amount they’d asked for, Childers said.
The jury ruled that Harper had sexually harassed the women and that the conduct was so pervasive or severe that it created a hostile environment at work.
The jury also said it was not satisfied that the Department of Corrections had taken reasonable care to prevent and correct sexually harassing behavior.
The jury ruled against a claim that Meko had retaliated against one of the women for reporting misconduct by Harper.
However, an expert witness for the four women said the prison had not handled the complaints against Harper properly, Childers said.