Allegations that a female probation officer had a sexual relationship with the president judge of Butler County can remain in the hostile work environment lawsuit that the officer recently brought against the judge and court, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon of the Western District of Pennsylvania on Thursday denied the motion to strike that Butler County President Judge Thomas Doerr filed in the case Starnes v. Court of Common Pleas of Butler County.
Doerr’s motion had asked the court to remove more than 15 paragraphs from plaintiff Crystal Starnes’ complaint that outlined her claims regarding their alleged prior relationship, but Bissoon declined to do so, saying motions to strike are generally disfavored by the courts.
“The court finds that the challenged averments are arguably relevant to, among other things, plaintiff’s claim that her interactions with Doerr after ending their sexual relationship created a hostile work environment and violated her First Amendment right to free association,” Bissoon said in her two-page order. “To the extent the challenged allegations are potentially prejudicial and/or likely to confuse a fact-finder, the court will have the ability to address these concerns through appropriate pretrial orders and/or careful jury selection, if the action proceeds to that stage.”
Starnes’ lawsuit alleges that Doerr had discriminated against her and created a hostile work environment for her and her husband after they broke off a sexual relationship that began nearly 15 years ago. As president judge, Doerr oversaw administrative operations for the county’s probation department.
Pittsburgh attorney Edward Olds, who is representing Starnes, and Thomas, Thomas & Hafer attorney Thomas McGinnis, who is representing Doerr, both did not return a call for comment Thursday. A spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts declined to comment for the story.
According to Starnes’ complaint, she 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.
Starnes said in the complaint that Doerr said he wanted to keep their relationship professional, but they continued to have sex over the next five years, often in his chamber. In her complaint, Starnes said she had been “passive” about the relationship, and that she “felt she had little choice.”
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.
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.
Starnes filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016, and soon after was placed on a performance improvement plan, the complaint said. She filed her suit against the court and Doerr in October, alleging gender discrimination, retaliation and violation of her due process rights.