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Lawsuit: Boss at Iowa City firm secretly recorded employee pumping breastmilk

'It's hard enough to be a working mom without having to consider something like this'

Carlson Design Team office in Iowa City
Carlson Design Team office in Iowa City

IOWA CITY — An architect is suing her former boss based on allegations he secretly recorded her while she privately was pumping breast milk at work.

Jessica Clark, 32, of Ely, said she was shocked in December when she discovered a recording device disguised as a pen in the conference room she regularly used to pump breast milk at Carlson Design Team, in Iowa City, where she had worked since 2008.

“It’s hard enough to be a working mom without having to consider something like this,” Clark told The Gazette. “I was personally violated by this and I’ve been suffering emotionally because of this. But I also wanted to bring this behavior to light.”

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Johnson County against Robert C. Carlson, 67, and the Carlson Design Team, includes claims of sexual harassment, sex discrimination, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The case also is being investigated by the Iowa City Police Department, which has executed a search warrant, court records show.

Efforts to reach Carlson for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Clark, who worked for the small firm as an intern in the summers of 2008 and 2009, took a full-time job there in 2010, the suit states. She had her first child, a son, in 2015 and pumped breast milk at the office after returning from maternity leave.

“Breastfeeding was important for me to provide for them the best that I could,” Clark said. “With my son, he didn’t take well to bottles so it was a real challenge to get him to eat. It was helpful to provide breast milk for him because it was one less change.”

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She did the same thing following the birth of her daughter in January 2018, regularly reserving the conference room — the only room other than the bathroom that locked — to privately pump breast milk. Pumping requires a mother to lift her shirt and expose her breasts.

Clark started noticing Carlson would frequently use the conference room immediately before her scheduled time.

“When I went to pump that day, he had just gone in there to make a personal phone call,” Clark said. “Then he left for a meeting.”

Clark went into the room to pump, but she said she had a “‘spider sense’ feeling” that something wasn’t right. After pumping, she searched the room, looking behind the TV, under chairs and behind wall art. Then she saw a tan portfolio on a chair next to where she sat. What appeared to be a pen was sticking out.

“I knew it immediately that it had to be a camera,” Clark said. “I clicked the top of the pen and it didn’t do anything. I Googled ‘spy pen’ and it was the first result.”

The internet search showed her how to use the device, which she inserted into a conference room tablet. The camera showed images of her pumping breast milk minutes earlier, Clark said.

“I couldn’t believe that it happened,” she said. “But at the same time, it was affirming that I did feel this way and this did happen.”

Clark called Iowa City police and turned over the recording device, the suit states.

Iowa City police obtained a warrant Dec. 18 to search Carlson’s office, house and cars, court records show. Police were looking for digital storage devices, the records show. Among items seized were a desktop computer, two laptops, USB drives, disks, documents, a cellphone and digital cameras.

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In an affidavit, Officer Matt Young describes watching the video that Clark provided from the recording device.

“The video shows at the beginning what appears to be a male’s hand setting up and activating the recording device. Sometime later, the victim comes into the conference room and is seen taking off her shirt to where she is only wearing a bra. The victim is then seen attaching the pumping apparatus to her breasts and then proceeds to pump breast milk,” it states.

Iowa City police Sgt. Derek Frank confirmed Tuesday the case is under investigation.

Carlson’s license with the Architectural Examining Board is active and he has no disciplinary reports noted on the board’s website. Carlson Design Team PC opened in 2005, according to the firm’s website.

A woman who answered the phone there Tuesday said Carlson is not at work this week. She recommended emailing him, which The Gazette did Tuesday morning but didn’t hear back.

In 2014, an Iowa City landlord was sentenced to 150 days in jail for spying on six tenants in their apartments in 2012. Elwyn Miller, who faced lawsuits and was required to register as a sex offender, admitted peeping through holes he had installed in apartment walls and ceilings.

• Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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