AUBURN, Maine — A jury Thursday ruled in favor of Androscoggin County in a civil suit filed by a former jail guard.
Lisa Levesque of Buckfield alleged Sheriff Guy Desjardins and his second-in-command at the jail retaliated against her because she complained about a plan to move an abusive supervisor to a day shift.
On the fourth day of trial in Androscoggin County Superior Court on Thursday, in less than three hours, the jury supported the county and found 8-1 against Levesque.
Waterville lawyer Peter Marchesi, who defended the county, said he was pleased the jury believed the “administration had a valid reason for doing what it did” in adjusting Levesque’s work schedule and job duties, and that managers’ individual and collective actions had nothing to do with retaliation.
After the verdict was read, Levesque’s Saco attorney, Guy Loranger, said he was “stunned” by the jury’s decision. He said Levesque was upset that the jury did not support her claim, but she is currently employed at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham and “she’ll move on with her life.”
In his closing argument, as Levesque dabbed away tears, Loranger argued that Desjardins and other senior county managers allowed a former jail supervisor, Sgt. Kevin Harmon, to “harass, humiliate and degrade people” under his command, and that the “administration failed to take action” to protect those employees.
Pointing to his client, Loranger said, “This young lady was abused by Harmon” to the point that she had to receive mental health counseling and eventually left her job at the jail.
Harmon, who had been placed on a two-week suspension in the spring of 2008 after an internal investigation revealed his repeated harassment of female workers at the jail, including Levesque, had been switched to work the night shift. In May 2009, a proposal was made to move Harmon back to the day shift. Levesque, who worked days, complained about the move to managers because she feared he would harass her as he had before.
After Levesque’s complaint, Harmon remained on the night shift and eventually resigned after a hazing incident in late 2009.
Loranger told the jury it was unacceptable that, after Levesque complained about the proposal to move Harmon, she was the only employee who was instructed to have her overdue vehicle inspection corrected, she was instructed where to park, a recent performance review was altered without her knowledge, she was written up for certain work habits even though others were not disciplined for the same activities and, eventually, she was reassigned to a different job.
It was, Loranger argued, “retaliation to discourage a reasonable person from complaining again.”
Between May and July 2009, after complaining about Harmon’s potential reassignment, Loranger said Levesque was forced to seek medical treatment, including taking anti-anxiety prescription drugs to “endure the workplace.”
Marchesi painted a different picture, one of Levesque disobeying supervisors’ instructions, of years of emotional health issues that predated her contact with Harmon and were unrelated to her employment with the county, of repeated violations of workplace safety guidelines, of aggressive interactions with her supervisors, and of threatening lawsuits against individual officers.
In reviewing the evidence presented at trial, Marchesi reminded the jury that Levesque had posted several signs in her workplace signaling others to leave her alone, including one sign that read: “Tell me what to do and I’ll tell you off.”
“This is a person who does not take criticism well,” Marchesi said, even constructive criticism designed to ensure her safety when dealing with large numbers of inmates at the jail.
County officials did not retaliate against Levesque, he argued. “They acted for her safety,” acknowledging that Desjardins did adjust her job duties, but only after she complained she couldn’t get her work done. The sheriff’s actions were taken to lessen her workload, not to increase it, Marchesi said.
And when Levesque’s evaluation was changed, notations on her job performance were improved and not made worse, which goes against the claim that managers were retaliating against her, he argued.
Answering Loranger’s argument that the county documented adverse actions against Levesque in more detail than other employees, Marchesi acknowledged that was true, but it was done because she threatened to sue the county and several of its officers, so the county was working to protect itself against a possible suit.
Desjardins, Marchesi said, counseled her multiple times, including issuing an employee counseling letter, because “she was a good employee and he wanted to help her.” The decision to change her work duties was done in Desjardins’ belief that a “different work environment with a strong supervisor would help her.”
Marchesi suggested to the jury that Levesque had embellished interactions with her supervisors and managers during her testimony, and implored the jury to consider that all of the actions taken against Levesque were taken to ease her job tasks and work burden, not to retaliate against her for complaints she made regarding Harmon’s work shift.
Before the jury retired to deliberate the facts of the case, Marchesi asked them to focus on the specifics of Levesque’s claims of retaliation, not on the influence Harmon had in the workplace and his harassment of Levesque and other women.
“We’re all agreed,” Marchesi said. “Kevin Harmon is a bad guy, but this case is not about him.”
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