Note: This story was last updated at 10:30 p.m.
CHATTANOOGA—A seven-person federal jury on Thursday found that a former Anderson County employee had been sexually harassed by former Anderson County Circuit Court Clerk William Jones, but the county was not liable. The former employee, Gail Harness, had filed a lawsuit in federal court because of the sexual harassment, and she had sought $7.5 million in damages.
The lawsuit was tried in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga from Monday to Thursday.
Attorneys for Harness had alleged that Anderson County had inadequate training or supervision and had tolerated violations of federal law. Harness had endured a hostile work environment caused by the pervasive, unwelcome sexual advances from Jones, and her rights had been violated under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the attorneys said. Harness had sought damages for pain and suffering, embarrassment and humiliation, permanent injury, and loss of enjoyment of life and reputation.
But attorneys for the defendant, Anderson County, said the county had no control over Jones, an elected official, and the county had investigated after Harness filed her complaint in 2017.
Four women testified in federal court in Chattanooga this week. They said Jones had caressed them around the waist, rubbed them, whispered inappropriate things about how other employees looked, sent graphic sexual messages about oral sex, asked them for “alone time” and to accompany him on a trip, and responded to a question about a job with a message that included a suggestion to send a picture of breasts, among other allegations. Jones referred to himself as “Daddy,” the women said, and he asked Harness to have sex with him and his wife, according to her testimony. Jones boasted about being unaccountable to anyone except the voters of Anderson County, according to the witnesses. Employees said they worried about being moved to the Oak Ridge court—the “clerk’s graveyard”—or fired if they didn’t please Jones or comply.
“He is an elected official, and he told us all the time, no one can touch me,” said employee Tracy Spitzer, a witness for Harness.
“They were all scared to do anything about it,” said Richard Collins, one of three attorneys for Harness.
Jones said he could do whatever he wanted, including masturbate in his office, according to the testimony.
Jones served one term as Anderson County Circuit Court clerk from 2014 to 2018. He was defeated in the 2018 Republican Party primary by Rex Lynch. Jones is now vice treasurer of the Anderson County Republican Party. He declined to comment Thursday.
Here are some of the facts disputed in testimony during the trial: Did Jones attend training that the county advocated after one complaint was filed? When did the county and Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank learn about the alleged sexual harassment by Jones? Did the county do enough, or anything significant, in response? Did Frank tell former Human Resources Director Russell Bearden to not take a complaint to Law Director Jay Yeager because that would “cause a political storm”? Bearden testified she had; Frank said that was not accurate.
Primary issues raised in court the past few days have been whether Jones was a state official or county official, whether he was a final policy-maker for Anderson County, and whether the county should be held liable if Jones was a state official. The defense, Anderson County, argued that the circuit court clerk position is created by the Tennessee Constitution. But Harness’ attorneys said Jones supervised county employees, and the county had abdicated or delegated final authority about policies to Jones. U.S. Senior District Judge Curtis Collier called the question of whether the circuit court clerk is a county official or a state official a “very thorny issue.” It’s an issue expected to be raised as the litigation continues, possibly to be appealed. These questions could be resolved by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
An unresolved question is: What is the remedy in a case like this, when an elected official is allegedly recalcitrant? The options to respond to Jones’ behavior that were cited in court this week included removal by the circuit court judge; an election that was several months away; an ouster suit, which would have taken time; or censure. Jones was censured by the Anderson County Commission in 2018, but it’s not clear that it had much of a practical impact. What if there has been testimony about egregious conduct, but there is no remedy? Collier asked during debate between the attorneys about some of these questions on Wednesday morning.
On Tuesday, Harness testified that the harassment by Jones left her traumatized. She said she has panic attacks and anxiety, nightmares and flashbacks, and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She has moved back to Scott County to get away from Anderson County. She said she now drives to distant places to eat to avoid seeing Jones and took different routes to bring her children to school in Anderson County last year. She doesn’t go to Walmart anymore because Jones once cornered her there, Harness said.
“Anywhere I think he might be, I don’t go,” she said.
When she sees Jones, “I go into a full panic attack,” Harness said. She testified that she has passed out after seeing her former boss. She fainted outside the courthouse on Tuesday while Jones was there, and an ambulance was called. One of her attorneys, Ursula Bailey, told Collier that Harness collapsed because of Jones—”100 percent.”
“It is exactly why we are here, your honor,” Bailey said. “It’s why we are here.”
However, the jury was not allowed to hear about her fainting on Tuesday after the defense objected on the basis that the testimony would be prejudicial, although the jury did hear about a previous fainting incident.
During her testimony, Harness said she would try to change the subject when the text messages and Snapchat conversations with Jones turned sexual. But when she asked him something job-related, he would respond with a sexual comment, Harness said.
“He would make anything sexual,” she said. She said the advances were unwelcome, but she felt she had to respond because Jones was her boss and she needed the job, which started as a college internship. It was well-known that employees had to keep their boss happy, Harness said.
“I couldn’t lose my job,” Harness said. “I had to supply for us.”
Harness filed a complaint with the county in August 2017. Her complaint was the third filed against Jones, according to the information presented in court this week. Other complaints followed the one filed by Harness. After she filed her complaint and gave a sworn statement, she was put on leave, although she had not asked for that. After her statement, nothing changed for her or at the clerk’s office, Harness said. She said she thought her complaint would be anonymous—she panicked and tried to withdraw it when she found it wouldn’t be—and her job would be protected since she was a whistle-blower. That didn’t turn out to be true, Harness said.
She filed her lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Knoxville in March 2018.
Harness is one of eight alleged victims of Jones during his term as Anderson County Circuit Court clerk. Four of the women testified in Chattanooga on Monday and Tuesday.
Harness’ lawsuit is one of two filed against Anderson County and Jones. The other has been filed by another woman who said Jones harassed her, Amy Ogle. That case is still pending in U.S. District Court.
The presentation of evidence in Harness’ lawsuit began Monday and concluded Wednesday, and the jury deliberated Thursday. Oak Ridge Today attended the first three days of the trial, when the evidence was presented, but was unable to attend the fourth, when the jury deliberated.
In a statement, attorneys for Harness said they will appeal the jury instructions. They said the jury found Harness had been subjected to severe and pervasive sexual harassment by Jones but, under disputed jury instructions, found Anderson County was not liable for the sexual harassment under the U.S. Constitution.
In its verdict, the jury said Harness was a county employee and had been subjected to unwelcome sexual harassment, but her attorneys had not proven by a preponderance of evidence that Anderson County should have known about the harassment and had a custom of tolerating or acquiescing to the violation of constitutional rights. The seven-person jury, smaller than normal because of COVID-19 restrictions, also said the plaintiff had not proven that the county had a custom of failing to train its officers or employees and had not shown that a custom was the “moving force or direct causal link” to the violation of plaintiff’s constitutional rights. The jury also did not find that Harness had proven that Anderson County is liable for a hostile work environment in violation of the Tennessee Human Rights Act.
The burden of proof is different in a civil case than in a criminal case. Most people are familiar with the criminal burden of proof, “beyond a reasonable doubt.” But in a civil case, it’s “preponderance of the evidence,” meaning more likely than not.
Because of the way the jury answered the verdict questions, it did not answer a question about whether Harness is entitled to any damages.
Harness was represented by attorneys Bailey, Collins, and Dan Stanley.
Anderson County was represented by attorneys Arthur Knight and Caitlin Burchette.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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