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Fired DOC counselor’s sex-discrimination claim revived by 7th Circuit

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a former Department of Correction substance abuse counselor’s lawsuit alleging sex-discrimination and hostile work environment, finding she was treated differently as compared to the employee she had an affair with while working at a maximum-security prison.

Connie J. Orton-Bell, who worked at Pendleton Correctional Facility for two years, began an affair with Major Joe Ditmer, a 25-year veteran of the DOC who was in charge of custody at the facility. They had sexual intercourse in Ditmer’s office and off-site. Officials suspected the two were having an affair and began an investigation. At this time, officials also were investigating Orton-Bell’s claim that she and another young female employee’s desks appeared to have been used at night. The investigation revealed that night staff would have sex on their desks. DOC officials told Orton-Bell that they didn’t care as long as staff wasn’t having sex with inmates and that she should wash down the desk every morning.

After Orton-Bell and Ditmer admitted to having an affair, they were both terminated, but Ditmer was allowed to resign, keep his benefits and be hired as a contractor and continue working at the facility. Orton-Bell was not given the same type of agreement and had difficulty obtaining unemployment benefits.

She sued, alleging sex-discrimination, hostile work environment and a retaliation claim based on her complaint about staff using her desk for sex. Her hostile work environment claim was based on explicit sexual comments male staffers directed toward her, and that she and other female employees would be patted down for longer periods of time in front of male staffers as they ogled and made sexual comments.

The state moved for summary judgment on her claims, which the District Court granted. But the 7th Circuit reversed on her sex-discrimination and hostile work environment claims. The judges found that the unending barrage of sexual comments made toward her supported her hostile work claim, but there is no evidence that staff used her desk at night because she was a woman.

“The conduct was disgusting, but that night-shift employees were using a conveniently private, secure yet accessible office for sex does not indicate that they were doing so because the office’s daytime occupant was a woman,” Judge Daniel Manion wrote.

The 7th Circuit affirmed regarding her retaliation claim for the same reason, noting she failed to establish that she had engaged in a protected activity.

The judges found that Ditmer could be considered a similarly situated employee as Orton-Bell and that he received more favorable treatment after their affair was discovered by officials.

“Firing the Major in Charge of Custody for an affair which compromised his ability to lead (especially given his repeated past violations of the conduct code) makes sense,” Manion wrote. “But letting him resign and retain the ability to keep working (with all attendant benefits) while firing the female counselor with whom he had an affair is suspect.”

The case, Connie J. Orton-Bell v. State of Indiana, 13-1235, is remanded for further proceedings.

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  1. Hysteria? Really Ben? Tell the young lady reported on in the link below that worrying about the sexualizing of our children is mere hysteria. Such thinking is common in the Royal Order of Jesters and other running sex vacays in Thailand or Brazil ... like Indy's Jared Fogle. Those tempted to call such concerns mere histronics need to think on this: http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/a-12-year-old-girl-live-streamed-her-suicide-it-took-two-weeks-for-facebook-to-take-the-video-down/ar-AAlT8ka?li=AA4ZnC&ocid=spartanntp

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  3. This is happening so much. Even in 2016.2017. I hope the father sue for civil rights violation. I hope he sue as more are doing and even without a lawyer as pro-se, he got a good one here. God bless him.

  4. JLAP and other courtiers ... Those running court systems, have most substance abuse issues. Probably self medicating to cover conscience issues arising out of acts furthering govt corruption

  5. I whole-heartedly agree with Doug Church's comment, above. Indiana lawyers were especially fortunate to benefit from Tom Pyrz' leadership and foresight at a time when there has been unprecedented change in the legal profession. Consider how dramatically computer technology and its role in the practice of law have changed over the last 25 years. The impact of the great recession of 2008 dramatically changed the composition and structure of law firms across the country. Economic pressures altered what had long been a routine, robust annual recruitment process for law students and recent law school graduates. That has, in turn, impacted law school enrollment across the country, placing upward pressure on law school tuition. The internet continues to drive significant changes in the provision of legal services in both public and private sectors. The ISBA has worked to make quality legal representation accessible and affordable for all who need it and to raise general public understanding of Indiana laws and procedures. How difficult it would have been to tackle each of these issues without Tom's leadership. Tom has set the tone for positive change at the ISBA to meet the evolving practice needs of lawyers of all backgrounds and ages. He has led the organization with vision, patience, flexibility, commitment, thoughtfulness & even humor. He will, indeed, be a tough act to follow. Thank you, Tom, for all you've done and all the energy you've invested in making the ISBA an excellent, progressive, highly responsive, all-inclusive, respectful & respected professional association during his tenure there.

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