CHAPEL HILL — A judge could rule in 45 days whether UNC-Chapel Hill violated the state whistleblower act in a housekeeper’s sexual harassment case.
Housekeeper Maria Isabel Prudencio-Arias is seeking unspecified damages from the university, her attorney, Al McSurely, said. They also hope to “breathe life into the whistleblower act” and push UNC-CH to examine and simplify its reporting procedures, he said.
In his closing argument Wednesday in an administrative hearing at UNC’s School of Government, McSurely said there are three central questions: What did university officials know? When did they know it? How quickly did they act?
University attorney Katherine Murphy contends the whistleblower act does not apply, because Prudencio-Arias didn’t file her complaint with the Office of Human Resources.
The university’s policy is that claims should be reported to a supervisor or administrator, preferably in the employee’s department, said Ann Penn, coordinator of UNC’s Equal Employment Opportunity Institute. The employee then can request an administrative review or file a grievance. State statutes require the university to act within 60 days of receiving a claim, McSurely said.
Prudencio-Arias filed her report with Penn, and after deliberating, sought an administrative review, Penn said. The investigation started in March 2011 and wrapped up in May 2011.
But McSurely argued the university knew about the harassment before his client reported it to Penn in March 2011. Prudencio-Arias testified the harassment started as early as 2007.
Penn’s report found that former housekeeping director Bill Burston did not sexually harass Prudencio-Arias in 2011. However, she did conclude that Burton acted inappropriately when he met with Prudencio-Arias behind closed doors and with the blinds to his office drawn. Prudencio-Arias also testified that Burston would touch and hug her when they were alone.
Murphy said Penn “did a good investigation in this case.” Even if there was some larger conspiracy to hide suspected harassment in housekeeping, Penn only knew what Prudencio-Arias told her, she said.
Prudencio-Arias testified Burston’s attitude toward her changed after she won a 2009 sexual harassment claim against former zone manager Dallas Burnette. Burston, who was Burnette’s supervisor, asked her for information about the case and criticized her work, she said. He told her not to talk with a co-worker who had advised her to tape conversations she had with Burnette.
Those tapes backed up the claims against Burnette, Penn testified. Burnette was eventually fired.
Penn said her investigation did not find that Burston, who resigned last year, was retaliating when he transferred Prudencio-Arias to address those issues. She also found that Prudencio-Arias did her job poorly at the School of Government after an injury restricted her ability to work. She was transferred to the Kenan Institute for three days and then returned to the School of Government, before being transferred to her current position in the South Campus residence halls.