I-Team: Standing up to sexual harassment: 'Even strong cases are difficult to win'

Cincinnati harassment cases on the rise

CINCINNATI -- Jessica Cope won a $119,000 jury verdict last summer in a sexual harassment case against Hamilton Riverside Dentistry.

But she didn't find much joy in her vindication.

"I just sat there and sobbed at the table," she told WCPO. "I wanted to retire from that place. I loved the office."

Cope thought she had found her dream job at the downtown Hamilton practice. She led a team of dental assistants who got along well. She earned $30 an hour plus a percentage-based bonus in an office that was close to home.

But the workplace became a nightmare after a new dentist started in 2014, Cope alleged in her 2015 lawsuit. The complaint said the dentist repeatedly made crude comments and frequently touched her and other female colleagues inappropriately.

Eight months after the verdict, her former bosses are appealing Cope's court win, convinced the jury got it wrong.

"The truth is she's just making up everything. There's no sexual harassment," said Neelam Goel, sister-in-law of the owner, Dr. Manju Kejriwal, and senior manager of the dental practice. "The truth needs to come out. They have tortured us for four years."

Neelam Goel (Lot Tan | WCPO)

Whether you see Cope as a victim of intolerable behavior or an employee who caused trouble for her former employer, her case illustrates the complex nature of making a sexual harassment allegation in the workplace.

"When I'm talking to somebody that hasn't made a complaint, my first question is ‘How much do you like your job? Do you want to stay there?' Once you start to rock that boat, the chance of you staying employed in that workplace starts to diminish," said Melinda Knisley, one of Cope's attorneys. "The people I talk to, either they have a low-level job where they can find other work or they just have gotten to a point where their anxiety has gotten so high and they're willing to throw caution to the wind."

But despite those obstacles, another local lawyer told WCPO that victims appear more willing than ever to assert new claims against local companies in the wake of the national attention that sexual harassment claims have received.

"We've gotten more calls in the last three months than we probably got in the last three years," said Randy Freking, an employment lawyer who is not involved in the Hamilton Riverside Dental case. His firm has settled about 20 sexual harassment cases in the last three years. "Companies are getting more letters and they're going to have to take them seriously," he said.


New cases on the rise

Sexual harassment charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission increased 2.2 percent to 12,860 in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2016, the most recent year for which national data was available.

The Ohio Civil Rights Commission received 165 new cases of sexual harassment in 2017, a 25 percent increase from 2016. Hamilton County saw a 37 percent increase to 11 cases during the same period, while Warren County declined from three cases to one and Butler County remained constant at three cases each year.

At the University of Cincinnati, a celebrated flute professor left the College Conservatory of Music last year after an internal investigation in October 2016 concluded that Bradley Garner engaged in "persistent and pervasive harassment" of CCM students. A UC investigator documented unwanted sexual advances and inappropriate comments and text messages by interviewing more than a dozen current, former and prospective students. An adjunct professor told investigators that Garner showed him a video he secretly recorded of himself having sex with two students. In an affidavit, Garner denied the allegations and criticized UC's probe.

"What should have been a simple investigation into false statements by two students instead turned into a wide-ranging, rumor-seeking, undisciplined witch hunt," Garner said. "The allegations lodged against me are false. Unfortunately, the report is filled with salacious rumors and rank hearsay."

State and federal court records show at least six new lawsuits filed in this region in the last year alleging sexually inappropriate workplace behavior in the last few years.

  • One of those cases involves a 16-year-old girl who was sexually assaulted while working in a Fairfield restaurant, according to a lawsuit filed in September by her mother on the teen's behalf. The complaint alleges an Applebee's cook blocked the girl's exit from a supply closet last March and began "grabbing her buttocks and grinding his groin into her buttocks." Later, an Applebee's manager allegedly pressured the teen into not filing a formal complaint. The Columbus-based owner of the restaurant has yet to file a formal response to the complaint and declined to comment on its allegations. "We are an Equal Opportunity Employer with a robust anti-discrimination and sexual harassment policy," said Mike Muldoon, president of RMH Franchise Holdings, in an email to WCPO.
  • Another complaint alleges the Cincinnati-based human resources director of Solidifi US Inc., a real estate valuation company, was sexually harassed by her Toronto –based boss, Jeffrey Patterson. In one incident, Diane Sweeney alleged Patterson called her from his Cincinnati hotel room and "told her to look out the window if she wanted to see a naked man." She didn't look. Solidifi denied Sweeney's allegations and claimed the company "exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any unlawful behavior."
  • In October, a former sales executive for the Keurig Green Mountain coffee company accused the company of illegally firing her after she was accused of sexual harassment. Susan Dollak of Loveland was the leader of the Vermont company's Kroger team when one of her subordinates accused her of "retaliation for rejecting her unwanted and uninvited sexual advances." Dollak denied the allegations but admitted being involved in an event during work hours in which alcohol was served. She alleged male supervisors were disciplined "much less severely" for conduct "comparable to if not more egregious" than her alleged behavior. The company "denies that (Dollak's) claims have any merit."
  • The most recent sexual harassment case filed in Cincinnati involves Blue Chip 2000 Commercial Cleaning Inc., where former Chief Financial Officer Elizabeth Wallis alleged the conduct of former President Daniel Hopkins "created an intimidating, hostile and offensive work environment." Wallis alleged a pattern of behavior that included asking if she could "feel the connection between them," calling her after hours and touching her leg and staring at her while he was driving. An attorney representing the company "disputes and disagrees with the allegations" in Wallis' complaint but declined further comment.

Those cases represent a small fraction of the region's sexual harassment allegations, Knisley and Freking said, because the vast majority of companies settle before cases ever get to court to avoid the potential publicity and humiliation.

Cope's case was one of the rare complaints that made it all the way to trial.

‘Degrading and scary'

Her 2015 lawsuit alleged that from the time he was hired as a subcontracting dentist in 2014, Dr. Paul Gaston made crude remarks and inappropriately placed his hands on women who worked at the dental practice.

"It's degrading and it's scary," Cope told WCPO. "I would take my lunch break and cry in the car. … You get to the point where you're trying to at all odds avoid the doctor as much as you can."

When co-worker Megan Berry came to her with similar concerns, Cope demanded action. Cope went to the office manager, she said, who told her that he would talk with the doctor. But that never happened. Cope said when she later angrily shut the doctor's laptop instead of looking at the pornographic video he was trying to show her, her employers sent her to take a drug test. She passed it, she said. But Cope and Berry were fired soon after that.

Operations Manager David Tankovich accused Cope of making false accusations in a November 2014 memo that sought termination of her unemployment benefits.

"They are not warranted and undeserved due to the mass chaos she caused in our office," said the memo, which was obtained by Cope's lawyers and provided to WCPO.

Goel said Cope never raised the issue of sexual harassment until she was asked to take a drug test in August 2014. Goel said she was shocked by the allegations and interviewed the whole staff to get to the bottom of it. But she found more reasons to doubt Cope's story than believe it.

"Just 48 hours prior to we sent her for drug testing, she sends an email to David Tankovich … saying everything in the office is fine and I'm so thankful to you," Goel said. "Jessica could say anything she wants but does she have anything in writing? You should see what she's sending and what she's communicating and corresponding in the emails and the text messages which does not go with her story."

The exterior of Hamilton Riverside Dentistry. (Lot Tan | WCPO)

Jurors saw that evidence before ruling the practice was negligent in its supervision of its former dentist and liable to Cope and Berry for a hostile work environment caused by sexual harassment. That led to judgments totaling $249,000, for Cope, Berry and their attorneys. But the jury didn't see evidence of another sexual harassment lawsuit that Cope filed against a previous employer. The 2004 complaint was settled in 2006. Cope's attorney said the prior complaint isn't relevant to whether sexual harassment happened at Hamilton Riverside Dentistry.

"This is becoming really ridiculous, people accusing about sexual harassment," Goel said. "People like Jessica, making it, scamming it. It's not right."

Gaston no longer works in Hamilton. A woman who answered the phone at the dental practice where he now works in Piqua, Ohio, said Gaston would not speak with WCPO without legal representation but said she could not provide the name of his lawyer to contact.

The case has taken an emotional toll on both Goel and Cope.

"My daughter is getting married in a month. I have no time for her, except to spend on this," Goel said. "Sentimentally, emotionally, it has completely drained us."

Cope has been unemployed for most of the last two years, saying other practices didn't want to hire her when they learned her last job ended with a harassment suit. She's convinced sexual harassment is common in the dental profession. She said 12 of the 15 dentists she's worked with in multiple practices have behaved inappropriately.

"Even today, I was afraid to wear makeup with you guys," Cope told WCPO's I-Team during an interview about winning her fight against sexual harassment. "I thought, ‘What if the news people think that because I've got a bunch of makeup on that maybe I deserved it?'"

That kind of self-doubt is common for victims of sexual harassment, even those who find the courage to come forward and win their cases, Knisley said.

Once filed, sexual harassment cases can take years to resolve. Usually, they start with a demand letter to the employer, followed by an administrative complaint to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or a similar state agency. If the case isn't resolved within six months, the next step is litigation. That can take another two years.

"Even strong cases are difficult to win just because the employer is always able to come up with some explanation … that kind of makes sense," Freking told WCPO. "The employer has all the evidence at their disposal. They have all the records. … And the employer controls a lot of the witnesses because the witnesses are usually still with the company."

Parting advice

But, as Cope's case shows, such lawsuits are not impossible to win. And there are steps employees can take to improve their odds.


For those who feel trapped in a hostile work environment, attorney Freking offers some advice: Start writing.

"A diary is very powerful evidence," he said.

As soon as possible after offensive behavior takes place, victims should try to document "where it occurred. Was there anybody present? The time it occurred, as much detail as possible. … Your best recollection when you're writing that journal is going to be better than a journal you write a month or two months later or a year later when you come see a lawyer."

In addition to notes, Knisley said victims of sexual harassment should preserve text messages, emails and screen shots of inappropriate images sent by those who harass them.

"It's a good idea to keep a record even if you decide not to do anything about it," she said. "That kind of proof has made our cases so much easier."

The aftermath of Cope's decision wasn't easy. She spent a year searching for a new job and collecting unemployment while trying to raise her daughter, Alyssa, alone. She hasn't collected damages, and she hasn't replaced her dream job. But she said she isn't sorry she took her former employer to court.

"I feel a lot stronger about it," she said. "I feel like now's the time. They're talking about it all over the news, with the #TimesUp and everything. Anyone out there who's going through it at their jobs should not be afraid. You've got to stand up, call your attorney."

And for managers who worry they could get caught up in false accusations spurred by the #MeToo movement, Freking has this advice:

"If you wouldn't say it or do it to your daughter at home, don't do it at the workplace," he said. "Pretty simple."

Jessica Cope, right, with her daughter, Alyssa. (Lucy May | WCPO)


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