CHATTANOOGA—Four women who testified during a civil sexual harassment trial in federal court last week said their former boss, a former Anderson County elected official, caressed them around the waist, rubbed them, sent graphic messages about oral sex, and asked them to have sex with him and his wife, among other allegations of inappropriate behavior. The experiences have left them traumatized, the women said, unable to eat or sleep, suffering from anxiety and panic attacks, and in one case, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Two of the women have filed lawsuits in federal court over the alleged harassment by former Anderson County Circuit Court Clerk William Jones, who served one term from 2014 to 2018. A trial was held for one of the lawsuits in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga last week. That lawsuit was filed in March 2018 by former employee Gail Harness, who started working for Jones as a college intern in 2016. The lawsuit had alleged that Harness had endured a hostile work environment in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Tennessee Human Rights Act.
On Thursday, a seven-person federal jury found that Harness had been sexually harassed while working for Jones, but the jury found that the county was not liable. No damages were awarded.
Jones was originally a defendant in the lawsuit, but he was dismissed in June 2019, leaving Anderson County as the sole defendant. Jones was not the employer, so Harness could not sue him, Senior U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier said in court Wednesday.
Jones had denied the allegations of sexual harassment, and he filed counterclaims in response to both lawsuits, the one filed by Harness and a second filed by Amy Ogle. In response to the Harness lawsuit, Jones had alleged that he had been defamed and his privacy invaded. But that was before before a jury found that Harness had been sexually harassed. Responding to the Ogle lawsuit, Jones has asked for at least $15,000 for legal services and fees.
The trial of the Harness lawsuit left unanswered, at least for now, a question about what can be done when an elected official violates constitutional rights. The county’s human resources director said a change in law might be required.
The four-day trial included disagreements between the testimony of former Anderson County Human Resources Director Russell Bearden and Mayor Terry Frank. The two disagreed about when the mayor knew about allegations of sexual harassment by Jones. They disagreed about whether the mayor retaliated and whether she protected Jones over the women he allegedly harassed. And they disagreed about whether she told the former human resources director to not take a complaint to the county law director because that would “cause a political storm.”
The trial, which was Monday to Thursday, had nine witnesses. They included Harness, the former employee who filed the $7.5 million lawsuit against Anderson County in 2018; her psychologist, who testified that Harness had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder; three other alleged victims of Jones; the current human resources director, Kimberly Jeffers-Whitaker; a deposition of the county law director, Jay Yeager; Frank; and Bearden.
Attorneys for Harness said the litigation will continue, and they said during the trial that it could be appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Harness’ attorneys disagreed with the jury instructions. Among the questions raised by the judge during the trial was whether Jones made policy for Anderson County and whether he is a county official or state official. The defense, Anderson County, argued that the office of circuit court clerk is created by the state constitution, while Harness’ attorneys said the county had delegated authority to Jones and he supervised county employees.
The allegations against Jones became public in February 2018. The Anderson County Commission censured Jones that same month. Jones ran for re-election despite the allegations, although he lost the May 2018 Republican Party primary to the current clerk, Rex Lynch. However, Jones remains involved in local politics; he is currently vice treasurer of the Anderson County Republican Party. Jones declined to comment about the lawsuit or trial on Thursday.
The presentation of the evidence during the civil trial last week lasted three days, Monday to Wednesday. The jury deliberated Thursday. Here we have included a chronological summary of the evidence presented to the jury. It includes information about the allegations of sexual harassment, the county’s response, and Jones’ response. We have also summarized discussions between the attorneys and Collier, the judge, and included more information about the jury verdict.
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