Public Safety

Former Linn County deputy sues county and sheriff for harassment he claims he endured from co-workers

Deputy says he was harassed because he took family leave to care for his newborn child

The Linn County Sheriff's Office in Cedar Rapids.
The Linn County Sheriff’s Office in Cedar Rapids.

CEDAR RAPIDS — A former Linn County Sheriff’s deputy who filed a complaint last year is now suing the county and the sheriff for harassment and retaliation because, he says, he took family leave to care for his newborn child in 2018.

Scott Becker, who was terminated Monday after working as a deputy since 2011, claims in the lawsuit he suffered sex discrimination, harassment and retaliation from co-workers because he took family leave for two weeks in January and an additional eight weeks from July 1 to Sept. 1, 2018.

Becker initially filed the lawsuit in January in Linn County District Court but refiled in U.S. District Court in February. Becker claims in the lawsuit that his co-workers and supervisors started harassing him as soon as they found out about his family leave, which was approved by the department. The co-workers told him he should “feel guilty and ashamed” for taking time off to care for his child.

They started putting toilet paper and women’s hygiene products in Becker’s locker, and one deputy told Becker he removed a “bunch of inappropriate papers” someone had posted on Becker’s locker, the suit states.

These incidents resulted in disciplinary action for three to four employees, Sheriff Brian Gardner told The Gazette last September.

The co-workers, who Gardner didn’t name but said one deputy holds a rank, faced suspensions “lasting no longer than a week or two,” and a handful of others would receive written warnings, Gardner said.

Gardner attributed the harassment to a “perfect storm” of the jail being understaffed and employees being forced to work multiple 16-hour shifts, including their days off.

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Gardner, on Thursday, confirmed Becker was terminated Monday and said he was aware of the lawsuit but could not comment because it is an ongoing legal dispute. He also said he was unable to comment about Becker’s termination because it was a personnel matter.

In the lawsuit, Becker asked Diane Losch, a human resources representative in the sheriff’s office, if he qualified for the family medical leave, and she “made it clear she thought this was a strange request for a man to make.” Since Becker had worked for the department, no male deputy had taken the leave to care for a newborn, the suit states.

When the leave became known, the harassment began, the lawsuit states. He reported the harassment by email to Lt. Kent Steenblock on Feb. 2, 2018, and it was forwarded to the jail commander, Maj. Pete Wilson, but neither supervisor responded to Becker or took any action, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit details encounters with other male deputies and with a lieutenant who yelled at him, “Didn’t you quit?,” when he saw Becker in the records room. Becker said he told him no, and the lieutenant said, “You should.” The incidents happened in March and August 2018

Another deputy who had ignored Becker since he took leave, one day called Becker “FMLA” — for Family Medical Leave Act — as Becker left the break room.

According to the suit, the harassment became so bad that jail inmates notices and told Becker the other deputies were “pissed” at him for taking time off.

In June, Becker met with a human resources clerical specialist, Denise Vander Sanden, and he provided her with at least seven incidents. He also complained about “rampant racist and sexist” language used at the jail and said two women had quit because of how they were treated.

Vander Sanden told Becker if he made a formal complaint, he couldn’t remain anonymous. Becker then filed a complaint.

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On July 1, Gardner emailed a revised harassment policy to the department, according to the lawsuit. A few weeks later, Gardner then sent an email, saying a complaint had been made and interviews would be conducted.

On July 24, Becker was interviewed by Douglas Duckett, an attorney from Cincinnati, Ohio, who the county hired to investigate the complaint.

The lawsuit said the investigation confirmed almost all of Becker’s allegations, finding that some of his co-workers had less respect for a man taking an extended leave to care for a child that they would for a woman.

Following the investigation, Gardner ordered that all employees go through harassment training conducted by Duckett.

At some point, when Becker left a training session, Wilson, the jail commander, gave him an sealed envelope from Gardner ordering him to report to a disciplinary meeting Oct. 29 to discuss allegations that Becker had violated department policy, according to the suit.

During the meeting, Becker said he didn’t feel he was supported by the department and was being harassed and retaliated against, according to the suit. Gardner told Becker he was wrong and the training was sufficient.

The suit contends the training was “too little and too late” after 18 months of inaction and repeated complaints not being addressed. After the training, the lawsuit states, Becker’s co-workers “simply ignored” him, refusing to sit by him during breaks and refusing to help him with duties.

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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