Judge: UNC failed to protect housekeeper who claimed harassment

tgrubb@newsobserver.comMarch 31, 2013 

— A judge ruled Friday that UNC-Chapel Hill did not violate the state whistleblower act but did fail to protect a housekeeper from sexual harassment and retaliation.

Administrative Judge Melissa Lassiter also said UNC-CH should amend and simplify its reporting procedures to comply with state and federal requirements.

“(The university) acted arbitrarily and capriciously in applying its policy … in investigating petitioner’s claims of harassment, sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation, and as such, violated petitioner’s due process rights,” Lassiter wrote in her decision.

The State Personnel Commission will review the ruling and make a final decision in the case.

While housekeeper Maria Isabel Prudencio-Arias established part of her whistleblower claim when she reported her supervisor’s sexual harassment, she did not prove that the university took “adverse action” against her in her job, Lassiter wrote.

Prudencio-Arias, who still works as a housekeeper, said this proves she was telling the truth.

“It is wonderful because justice was done and the truth came out. I don’t want a repeat of what happened to me to happen to other people,” she said.

Lassiter awarded her attorney’s fees and said the university should give her a job that meets her medical restrictions and “free from retaliation and harassment.”

Prudencio-Arias’ attorney Al McSurely said he will ask the commission to also award her $160,000 in damages for lost personal leave, depression and emotional stress.

“In this case, the university was negligent and, in some ways, recklessly negligent, and should be penalized for that. They should make Isabel whole,” he said.

The decision also could have implications for the case involving UNC-CH sophomore Landen Gambill, attorney Clay Turner said.

Just days after the U.S. Department of Education began its investigation into the university’s handling of sexual assault cases, UNC-CH appointed an investigator to look more closely at the complaints. Investigator Jayne Grandes works in the Equal Opportunity/Americans with Disabilities Act Office and reports to Director Ann Penn, who investigated Prudencio-Arias’ claims.

“This is not the answer to the current scandal the university faces,” Turner said.

Penn testified during Prudencio-Arias’ September hearing that university policy is to report claims to a department supervisor or administrator. The employee then can file a grievance or request Penn’s office do an administrative review. The state’s whistleblower law requires action on a grievance within 60 days.

When Prudencio-Arias chose to file an administrative review, she did not understand it wouldn’t trigger the 60-day requirement, the ruling states.

In her testimony, Prudencio-Arias said she was harassed by Housekeeping Director Bill Burston as early as 2007 and later by her supervisor Dallas Burnette. She proved her claim against Burnette, who eventually was fired.

Burston’s attitude changed during that time, Prudencio-Arias testified. He would ask about the case, criticize her work and warn her not to talk with co-workers who encouraged her, she said. He sought her out at work and touched her when they were alone, she testified.

In 2010, Prudencio-Arias was injured at work. She testified that Burston ignored her medical restrictions and later transferred her from the School of Government to a dormitory, where the work was more difficult. In 2011, she filed the report against Burston.

Penn’s report could not substantiate whether Burston sexually harassed Prudencio-Arias. However, she did conclude that he acted inappropriately and demonstrated “a severe deficiency in judgment.” She also did not find that Burston, who resigned in 2011, was retaliating when he transferred Prudencio-Arias. She did do her job poorly after she was injured, Penn reported.

Prudencio-Arias said her injuries linger, and she continues to be harassed about speaking out.

“It’s like they feel like I’m an enemy inside the house,” she said.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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