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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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