AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Human Rights Commission unanimously decided Monday morning to issue a right-to-sue letter to a woman who was assaulted as a teenager by the Caribou fire chief.
Whitney Nichols asked the commissioners last week for permission to sue the city of Caribou on grounds that she was subjected to a hostile work environment there, according to Amy Sneirson, the executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission. Nichols wrote in her request for the letter that her case had been pending before the commission for a long time and that the fact-finding process had been impeded by the city of Caribou. She wrote that she wanted to proceed with court action at this time.
“I told the complainants that I would recommend the commissioners grant the request,” the executive director said.
Roy Woods, 68, pleaded guilty last June to five misdemeanor charges of unlawful sexual contact, assault and unlawful sexual touching after Nichols and another young woman who had been employed by the city came forward to report the crimes against them. Woods resigned in January 2012 after working for 21 years as the head of fire, ambulance and emergency management services for the city. He was sentenced to one month in jail.
Nichols filed her complaint with the commission in August 2012, alleging that she had been subjected to unlawful sexual harassment at work when she was sexually assaulted by Woods. She also alleged that the city retaliated against her by cutting her hours and assigning her to work in a different location after she informed her employer about the assault.
Linda McGill, the attorney representing Caribou, said that when the city learned about the sexual assault, it took quick corrective action to remedy the situation, according to a report by human rights investigator Michele Dion.
The attorney also told Dion that the city was not liable for the chief’s sexual harassment of Nichols, because “it had no prior knowledge that would have led it to believe that the fire chief was likely to engage in this sort of behavior.”
Nichols said in her complaint that when she was hired at age 17 to clean the offices in the city’s emergency medical services building, another employee there told her to “stay away from the old pervert,” meaning the former fire chief.
On Dec. 11, 2011, Nichols was called in by Woods to clean his office, according to Dion’s report. When Nichols arrived, the then-chief told her he needed to give her a physical before she could join an emergency response team. She wrote in her complaint that he then touched her breasts and belly and attempted to kiss her before she ran out of the room. The chief later called her to apologize, but Nichols told him that it “was not OK,” according to the report. He then drove to her house to talk with her.
“He offered her a Caribou Fire Department water bottle and also offered her extra work hours to try to keep her from disclosing what had happened,” the report stated.
McGill told the investigator that the city took reasonable measures to prevent sexual harassment, and that Woods had participated in periodic training on Caribou’s sexual harassment policy.
“As bad as Fire Chief’s conduct was, the City is not strictly liable for it,” she said in the report.
Dion said that when the city of Caribou was directed to have McGill and four witnesses, all of whom are current municipal employees, come to a fact-finding conference this spring about the case, the witnesses did not attend. Dion phoned one of the employees, but that person was unwilling to answer questions and said she needed to ask her boss if she could respond. The employee never called the investigator back, Dion said.
“The respondent’s conduct has thwarted this investigator — and thus the commission — in the effort to fully assess the facts and circumstances of this case,” Dion wrote in the report.
She said that the sexual assault on Nichols was so severe that it created an abusive work environment. Dion also found that the city had “ample notice” of Woods’ prior harassing behavior with female employees, but ignored it.
Ultimately, she found that the city of Caribou is liable for subjecting Nichols to a hostile work environment based on sex, but that there are not reasonable grounds to believe that the city retaliated against her.
The four commissioners present at the Monday morning hearing did not vote on whether they found reasonable grounds to believe that Caribou had discriminated against Nichols, but they can issue right-to-sue letters without making an official finding, Sneirson said.