Atlanta Municipal Court Building. (Daily Report File Photo)
A former staffer at the Atlanta Municipal Court was awarded more than $1.2 million Wednesday following a trial on her claims of sexual harassment against a supervisor and the city. The award includes $350,000 in punitive damages against the man accused of the harassment, Municipal Court Operations Manager Horace Wyatt.
Legare, Attwood & Wolfe partner Eleanor Attwood, who led the team representing plaintiff Kelly Oliveira, said she hoped the city would accept the verdict.
“This has been a long road and [Oliviera] put up with a lot, both as an employee and then all the way through trial,” she said.
Atwood said a key from the case was that employers should “address your sexual harassment complaints in a sufficient timeframe and in a meaningful way.”
According to Attwood’s co-counsel, Steven Wolfe, the plaintiff will also seek attorney fees under federal rules allowing courts to award such fees in civil rights cases. And, according to the pretrial order, those are likely to top $175,000.
The trial defense was led by Anita Wallace Thomas of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, whom Wolfe said did a “fantastic job,” with the assistance of Atlanta Law Department staff attorneys Joan Clarke and Anissa Floyd.
The Law Department did not provide a response to a query by press time.
As detailed by her attorneys and court filings, Oliveira started working at the Municipal Court in 2010, first as a data-entry clerk and then as case manager to now-retired Judge Clinton Deveaux.
Shortly after she started working there, her complaint said, Wyatt began “ogling [her] body up and down while moving his mouth, lips, and tongue.”
After she started working for Deveaux, it said, Wyatt’s behavior escalated into comments about her “sexy” legs and sexually explicit statements about his affinity for strip clubs and oral sex and about Oliviera’s genitalia and breasts. He was also alleged to have rubbed her thighs and hugged her against her will in an elevator, among other things, according to the complaint.
In 2011, when Deveaux announced his pending retirement, Oliviera “was terrified that her protector would be leaving” and told him about Wyatt’s alleged behavior.
Deveaux advised her to speak the court administrator, Chris Patterson, who said she was going to be promoted and transferred to a different position and to “hold on a little longer.” Instead, the promotion was rescinded. That same day, Wyatt ordered all the files removed from her office and she was given no more work.
Oliviera was ultimately transferred to a position on the court’s DUI calendar, for which she had not been trained, and on her first day Wyatt said “that’s what you get.”
In November 2011, the Human Resources department learned of Oliviera’s complaints and launched an investigation, but “it was of no help to [her] and sought only to protect Wyatt.”
In early 2012, Oliviera took intermittent Family and Medical Leave Act time to deal with the stress of working under Wyatt, and in April of that year she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Within a few weeks of the city being notified of her EEOC complaint, she was fired while on FMLA leave.
The EEOC determined that Oliviera had been fired in violation of her Title VII protections against sexual discrimination and retaliation. In 2014, she sued the city, Wyatt, Patterson and Municipal Court Chief Judge Crystal Gaines for those violations as well as interference with FMLA and retaliation in Georgia’s Northern District.
By the time the case went to trial, Gaines and Patterson had been dismissed on summary judgment.
Wolfe said two mediations before Gino Brogdon with Henning Mediation & Arbitration Services failed to resolve the dispute, and trial commenced Aug. 7 before Judge Clarence Cooper.
According to the pretrial order, the defense claimed that Oliviera had been friendly with Wyatt. Early on, it said, she asked him to help her brother schedule a hearing, and the two of them then took Wyatt to lunch. At the lunch they discussed strip clubs, the defense account said, and she and her brother invited Wyatt to a strip club—an invitation he reportedly declined.
She also asked him for a ride home a couple of times and invited him to her sister’s birthday party, according to the pretrial order.
Over the course of an eight-day trial, Wolfe said the key witness was Oliviera “both because she had to tell her story and because the other side subjected her to a very extensive cross-examination. I’ve never seen anyone do as well under cross-examination.”
Wolfe said a corroborating witness, a fellow court employee, “broke up on the witness stand, describing the things he saw happening to her. He has four daughters; he testified that he tried to intercede with the harasser to no effect.”
Deveaux also testified that Oliviera had shared her concerns with him, Wolfe said, while several witnesses said they had spoken to Wyatt’s supervisor, Patterson, to no avail.
Gaines appeared as the defense’s final witness, he said, testifying that Oliviera had not been terminated for complaining about the harassment or filing an EEOC complaint.
During closing arguments, Atwood said she asked for Oliviera’s back pay, plus $500,000 in compensatory damages and $700,000 in punitive damages.
On Wednesday, Wolfe said the jury took about an hour and half to award $1,214,000, including $164,000 in back pay and $550,000 in compensatory/emotional damages against the city of Atlanta, and $150,000 in compensatory/emotional damages and $350,000 in punitive damages against Wyatt.
Afterward, Wolfe jurors expressed dissatisfaction with what “generally seemed to be a slow and inadequate response to the reports of harassment. That was major concern we heard.”
“They were not happy with how long it drug out,” agreed Attwood. “And I don’t think they appreciated that she continued being supervised by someone who was found to have harassed her.”
Attwood said she did not know whether the city will challenge the verdict.
“I would certainly hope they wouldn’t waste taxpayer money on an appeal,” she said.