Maine pays to settle discrimination lawsuit

Wed, 06/22/2022 - 9:45am

    WARREN — The state paid $395,000 to a former prison corrections officer to settle a lawsuit filed by a woman who claimed that she endured a hostile work environment due to her gender and sexual orientation while working at the Maine State Prison and Bolduc Correctional Facility. 

    The amount of the settlement agreement in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court of Bangor by Autumn Dinsmore in July 2021 has been reported in various media outlets. Her attorney, Shelby Leighton, wrote in a news release: “Autumn has worked bravely and tirelessly for years to change the culture at Maine State Prison, which is abusive and unwelcoming to women, and gay women in particular. We are hopeful that filing this lawsuit will lead to women employees of the prison finally being treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

    Dinsmore worked for the Maine Corrections Department beginning January 23, 2017. Her last position was a correction officer at Bolduc Correctional Facility and worked in the same capacity at Maine State Prison from January 23, 2017 to September 23, 2019.

    In April 2019, Dinsmore filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission alleging discrimination based on her sex, sexual orientation, and disability, and retaliation.

    The Commission investigated Dinsmore’s discrimination complaint and issued its findings in January 2021.

    According to the subsequent lawsuit, the Commission had said there were reasonable grounds to believe that the Maine Corrections Department discriminated against Dinsmore on the basis of sex by subjecting her to disparate treatment and a hostile work environment.

    Dinsmore filed her lawsuit six months later in July 2021.

    “Throughout her employment by the Department, Autumn has endured a work environment that is hostile and abusive to female COs,” her complaint said. “This severe and pervasive harassment stems from an institutional mindset—male COs to supervisors and administrators—that women COs should not work there.”

    In a response filed in October 2021, the State of Maine said that their, “actions were neither willful nor in disregard of Plaintiff’s asserted rights.” The defendants said they acted in good faith and without malice or unlawful intent at all relevant times.

    The defendants also denied any engagement in intimidating and threatening behavior, inappropriate actions or that they treated the plaintiff differently.

    In the lawsuit, Dinsmore said that soon after she started working at the prison, a male officer asked her whether she was “looking for love or a lawsuit.”

    She said her fellow COs told her that they did not think women should work there because women officers were always, “getting in trouble.”

    The lawsuit includes details of alleged sexual overtures from male officers, including officers who sent her unsolicited and unwanted photos of their genitalia on Snapchat, and who pressured her to send nude photos of herself to them.

    Dinsmore had said that she and other female officers said they overheard male officers making inappropriate comments about having sex with female officers and talking about competing to see who could sleep with a new female officer first, sometimes in front of officers.

    “This sexual harassment and the use of the sexist stereotype that women officers are sexual objects and will be unable to resist sexual desire for male prisoners was all the more unfounded and offensive in Autumn’s case because Autumn is gay and is not romantically or sexually interested in men,” the lawsuit said.

    “Autumn was also reassigned to a position with less overtime and suspended for two weeks without pay based on the pretext of having non work-related contact with a probationer,” the complaint said. “This contact occurred because Autumn reasonably believed the probationer was stalking her, including by following her in public, asking her ex-girlfriend about her, and calling her at work.”

    Dinsmore said the prison ignored her requests for help with what she said was a dangerous situation. She asked a male friend to call the probationer to try to get him to stop.

    “Only when the harassing probationer specifically asked to speak with her as a condition of backing off did she call him to request that he leave her alone,” the suit said. “Even though she again asked the Prison for help, she was disciplined for contacting the probationer and told there was nothing they could do to protect her.”

    The state said in its response to the complaint that Dinsmore was temporarily reassigned to a different position and suspended for two weeks without pay following a sustained allegation that she had non-work-related contact with a probationer. The state denied that the reassignment resulted in less overtime and that it was a pretext.

    The attorneys for Dinsmore said, “that the two-week suspension without pay for a single phone call to a former prisoner cannot be reconciled with the Prison’s failure to impose any discipline on a male CO who admitted to the Prison that he had an in-person conversation with the same probationer and who further reported to the Prison that many COs run into and ‘chat’ with probationers at a bar in Rockland.”

    None of those COs were disciplined, the lawsuit said.

    Dinsmore was represented by Attorneys David G. Webbert, Shelby H. Leighton and Valerie Z. Wicks of Johnson, Webbert and Garvan, LLP of Augusta.

    The state was represented by Attorney Eric J. Uhl of Richardson, Whitman, Large and Badger in Portland.

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