Woman suing Cambria coroner

A former female Cambria County employee has accused Coroner Jeffrey Lees of creating a “sexual, hostile work environment” in his office and then having office staff retaliate against her after she filed a complaint with the county’s director of human resources.

The ex-employee, Stacie Holsinger, through attorney Lawrence D. Kerr of Greensburg, this week filed a civil rights complaint in the U.S. District Court in Johnstown that contained a communication that she presented to Human Resources Director Bryan J. Beppler on June 21, 2017, outlining her allegations against Lees.

It was filed under the “harassment policy” as outlined in the Cambria County employee handbook.

The complaint stated Lees “has created a sexual, hostile work environment.”

As an example, the coroner, who was meeting with a colleague from another county, had Holsinger, who was his executive assistant, come into his office to see his laptop.

On the laptop “was a video of topless women” discussing their breast sizes.

“I walked out of the room disgusted and embarrassed,” she stated in the complaint.

On another occasion, a retirement celebration for a co-worker, Lees showed Holsinger a lascivious photo of a female that led Holsinger to comment, “I did not need to see that.” She said she “was again disgusted and embarrassed.”

She reported to Beppler that she felt uncomfortable with the “constant vulgar and sexual language” used in the coroner’s office.

She also stated she was concerned that Lees was going to terminate her prior to the date she became vested under the county retirement plan.

Beppler eight days later answered Holsinger’s complaint, stating: “There was a prompt and thorough investigation completed regarding this matter. All pertinent parties associated with this allegation were interviewed accordingly. However, there was no supporting evidence to substantiate this allegation.”

“Therefore the complaint is deemed closed at this time.”

Beppler in his reply to Holsinger stated that the county is committed to maintaining a work environment free from all forms of harassment.

He also stated that “retaliation against any individual for reporting a claim of harassment or discrimination is prohibited.”

However, what occurred after the Beppler investigation was completed involved a series of incidents that the federal lawsuit described as “pervasive” retaliation that eventually led Holsinger’s resignation from the county job.

On July 5, Holsinger came to work only to find her office had been moved “to an inferior location with no widows.”

She was barred from communicating with Lees unless there was a death call. She was only permitted to page him, and all other communication with Lees had to go through Chief Deputy Coroner Joseph Hribar or Deputy Scott Effinger, it was charged in the lawsuit.

Her duties, it stated, were increased, forcing her on some occasions to work 12-hour days.

The temperature in her office was turned down to 52 degrees, and her key to the office was taken away.

She was barred from having access to interoffice mail, and she was removed as coordinator from the coroner’s Yellow Ribbon Program against teenage suicide.

A new dress code was imposed telling her she had to cut her hair short or have her hair “pulled up” and permitting her to only wear a coroner’s shirt and slacks with a badge displayed on her belt.

On Aug. 16, she was given a written warning for the way she handled the reporting of a death three weeks prior.

The lawsuit charges that the “intentional discrimination” against her led her to resign.

It concluded that Holsinger was the victim of a “constructive discharge,” meaning that the retaliation was so severe that it “would have caused a reasonable employee in Ms. Holsinger’s position to feel compelled to resign.”

Holsinger was given the right to sue by the federal Equal Employment Opportu­nity Commission on March 2.

She initially was employed by former Cambria County Coroner Dennis Kwiatkow­ski on Aug. 5, 2012, and remained in her full-time position upon Lees’ assumption of office on Jan 1, 2016.

Cambria County officials, including the coroner, were reluctant to discuss the matter.

Beppler said it involves a personnel matter and therefore was confidential.

He said the county has a “complete process and procedure” for handling personnel matters including charges of sexual harassment.

Lees returned inquiries by the news media and at first wanted to say something, but then referred the request for comment to county solicitor William Barbin.

The solicitor stated that the county “intends to vigorously defend the case.”

He said the lawsuit has been referred to the county’s insurance carrier, but he said the county believes “there are considerations here that this is not a valid claim.”

U.S. District Judge Kim R. Gibson has referred the case to the federal Alternative Dispute Resolution program.