BY PAULA MINAERT — The city of Hyattsville has filed for the dismissal of a federal lawsuit against it by a former police officer on the grounds that it was filed after the statute of limitations had expired.
Pfc. Marsha Mutchler Lessard, a Hyattsville Police Department officer from 2004 to 2009, filed a lawsuit on June 28 alleging sexual harassment and discrimination, and then retaliation for complaining about it.
Then, on July 27, city attorneys asked that the case be dismissed because Lessard did not file charges within 300 days, the legally mandated time period for a sexual harassment complaint. “If the case is ultimately held to be timebarred, then the case is over,” said local attorney Joseph Gigliotti, “regardless of its merits.” He serves as general counsel for the Hyattsville Life & Times and has no connection with the case. The facts of the case are complicated and are presented in starkly different lights by Lessard and the city.
Lessard was hired as a private in the police department in November 2004. She attended a Fraternal Order of Police convention in Louisville, Kentucky, in August 2007 as did Sergeant Patrick O’Hagan of the Hyattsville Police Department. In February 2008, she was presented with a service award by the Hyattsville FOP. That same month, the department transferred her to a squad led by O’Hagan.
That September, an attorney for Lessard wrote to Chief Douglas Holland stating that O’Hagan had attempted to rape Lessard at the 2007 convention, that his actions were “condoned by the Hyattsville City Police,” and that Lessard requested $200,000 in compensation.
After that letter, the city asked the Maryland State Police to conduct an investigation of the incident. It did so and administrative disciplinary charges were brought against O’Hagan.
According to case documents, on October 27, 2008, Lessard was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder related to the 2007 incident and put on disability leave with pay. In November 2008 the department opened an investigation of Lessard in response to a complaint made against her for “improper language” during an April traffic stop. The investigation was closed administratively in December because the complainant did not cooperate.
On March 18, 2009, Lessard filed a discrimination charge with both Prince George’s County Human Relations Commission and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
On May 11, 2009, Lessard was involuntarily terminated from the police department; the city stated it was because she had failed to return to work within six months after her leave.
On March 5, 2012, the county Human Relations Commission ruled that her claim of a hostile work environment was time-barred and found no evidence to support her claim of retaliation.
On June 12 the EEOC ruled the same. On June 28, Lessard filed suit against the police department in U.S. District Court.
In the suit, Lessard claims the existence of a pervasive discriminatory and hostile work environment for women within the police department, with remarks and harassment commonplace.
Witnesses for the city claim that Lessard engaged in unprofessional behavior (discourtesy and foul language) and did not perform her duties adequately.
Abby Sandel, spokesperson for the city, said, “The City can’t discuss the matter publicly while the case is ongoing._ However, we believe strongly and without exception, that all City employees have the right to be treated equally and fairly._As a matter of policy, the City has long forbidden discrimination in its workplaces in any form and will continue to do so.”
The deadline for Lessard to respond to the city’s motion to dismiss her case is August 13.