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City worker’s harassment suit revived

A federal judge should not have dismissed a sexual harassment complaint against the city of Baltimore and the former head of the Baltimore Commission on Aging and Retirement Education, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held.

The decision revives a lawsuit filed in 2006 by Katrina Okoli, who claimed she was forcibly kissed, fondled and subjected to innuendo and stories about her boss’s sexual fantasies over the course of several months, then fired hours after she made a formal complaint to then-Mayor Martin O’Malley.

According to the 4th Circuit, U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson found the alleged conduct by former CARE Executive Director John P. Stewart was not severe or pervasive enough to constitute a hostile work environment.

The 4th Circuit disagreed, noting that Okoli had raised at least 12 instances of harassment over the course of four months. For purposes of the appeal, the 4th Circuit treated Okoli’s allegations as true.

While Stewart denied the allegations in an internal memo to the mayor, he did not deny or address them in two affidavits filed with the court, Monday’s opinion notes.

“We conclude that Okoli presents a strong claim for hostile work environment,” Judge Roger L. Gregory wrote for the majority, which vacated the summary judgment ruling and remanded back to U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

Okoli had been hired in June 2004 to serve as Stewart’s executive assistant. She represented herself in the original case, which sought back pay and punitive damages of an unspecified amount.

Nickerson granted the city’s motion for summary judgment in 2008, and Okoli appealed. In March 2010, the 4th Circuit assigned counsel for her — April G. Dawson, an assistant professor at the North Carolina Central University Law School. The appeal was argued a year later.

In a phone interview on Tuesday, Okoli declined to comment on the case and referred questions to Dawson, who did not return calls for comment.

Baltimore City Solicitor George A. Nilson, whose office handled the original trial and the appeal, said Tuesday that he had not seen the opinion. He said he will meet with the lawyers handling the case and see how to proceed.

In granting the city’s motion for summary judgment, Nickerson also found the city had a legitimate basis to fire Okoli for performance issues, and that her firing could not have been retaliatory because a computer time stamp showed the letter of termination was created more than a week before Okoli complained to then-Mayor Martin O’Malley on April 1, 2005.

The 4th Circuit reversed on those points as well.

“In this case, there is some evidence that Okoli occasionally had scheduling conflicts and made typographical errors. But it appears deeply suspicious that Stewart fired Okoli only hours after she culminated her rejection of him by complaining to the Mayor,” Gregory wrote in the opinion.

Stewart’s and Okoli’s “last disagreements were about whether to meet at 8:30 a.m. instead of 8 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. instead of 2:10,” Gregory noted.

The court also was critical of Nickerson’s reliance on the time stamp to establish that Stewart had fired Okoli for making her complaint.

“That a computer file was created on a certain day tells us nothing about its contents on that day. It is entirely possible “Katrina.doc” could have been blank — or contained an unrelated or favorable review of her work, which Stewart later modified,” Gregory wrote. “Indeed there is already evidence in the record that Stewart modified his letter three times before delivering it.”