Butler County courthouse. Photo: Google

A federal judge has reinstated a claim of sex discrimination against the Butler County president judge brought by a female probation officer with whom he previously had a sexual relationship.

U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon of the Western District of Pennsylvania on Thursday denied a motion by Butler County President Judge Thomas Doerr to dismiss Crystal Starnes’ 14th Amendment sex discrimination claim.

In July, Bissoon had allowed most of Starnes’ discrimination and hostile work environment claims against the judge, court and administrator to proceed, but she had dismissed Starnes’ sexual discrimination claim against Doerr specifically, saying the probation officer had failed to show that the judge had committed “discrete discriminatory acts.” As part of the ruling, Bissoon gave Starnes leave to amend her complaint to provide more specifics about Doerr’s alleged conduct, and, according to Bissoon, Starnes’ new allegations further outlining the judge’s alleged conduct are sufficient to proceed on the claims.

“Defendant Doerr, using both his capacity as a decision-maker and his influence on other decision-makers, deprived plaintiff of the ability to work as a standby and/or on-call probation officer,” Bissoon said as part of a list of alleged conduct. “These amendments make clear that plaintiff alleges she suffered adverse employment actions and that defendant Doerr was responsible for those employment actions. No more is required at this stage.”

According to the complaint, Starnes met Doerr at a 2004 Christmas party. She said she rebuffed his attempts to meet with her after the party, but in February 2005 she met him at the courthouse after business hours and the two had sex on the floor of his chambers.

At the beginning of their relationship, Starnes was a probation officer in neighboring Allegheny County, but was a Butler County resident. The complaint said Starnes had wanted to work in Butler County, and Doerr helped her get a job at the county’s probation department.

As president judge, Doerr oversaw administrative operations for the county’s probation department.

However, according to the complaint, Doerr subsequently began to assert control over her work-life, including allegedly making her appear in his courtroom, and acting “patronizing” and “flirtatious.”

In 2010, after their sexual relationship ended, Starnes began dating the man whom she later married, the complaint said. Doerr subsequently began harassing her and her husband, and, after she became pregnant, Doerr gave Starnes job assignments that conflicted with her complicated pregnancy, the complaint said.

Among other things, the complaint said, Starnes was eventually ostracized at the office and forced to work in a different work area from the other officers. The complaint also alleged, that, among other things, she was not given regular email access, and was prohibited from conducting field visits that her male colleagues had been able to perform.

In a footnote in her decision Thursday, Bissoon said she found some of Doerr’s arguments “troubling.” Doerr, she said, has repeatedly contended that, because there is a split within the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit regarding whether sexual assault constitutes a discrete act, or whether it can be part of a continuous violation theory, he had not been on notice that sexually assaulting a female subordinate is a constitutional violation.

“Defendant Doerr’s argument is improperly raised and legally unsound. It has been settled law since 1979 that the sexual assault can form the basis of a hostile work environment claim,” Bissoon said, citing the U.S. Supreme Court case Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson.

A secretary for Thomas, Thomas & Hafer attorney Thomas McGinnis, who is representing Doerr, said McGinnis declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts declined to comment, and Pittsburgh attorney Edward Olds, who is representing Starnes, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday morning.