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State reaches $250,000 settlement in harassment suit

The state of Maryland has tentatively agreed to pay $250,000 to a former Queen Anne’s County detective who claimed she was fired from the sheriff’s department in retaliation for having complained of being sexually assaulted by the sheriff’s brother, her supervising officer.

Kristy Murphy-Taylor’s financial settlement with the state and the Queen Anne’s County Sheriff’s Office still must be approved by the state Board of Public Works, whose three members are Gov. Larry Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp.

The accord follows Murphy-Taylor’s settlement last May with the county, under which Queen Anne’s agreed to pay her $620,000 in lost income and attorney’s fees, according to a statement from the U.S. Justice Department, which intervened in the lawsuit on her behalf in February 2013.

The state, county and sheriff’s office admitted no wrongdoing in agreeing to the settlements.

The most recent agreement also calls for a revision of policies and procedures for handling claims of sexual harassment and retaliation. These revisions include requiring the Maryland State Police to oversee the handling of harassment and retaliation claims made by employees of the sheriff’s office against sworn officers, under the consent decree U.S. District Judge Ellen L. Hollander approved Thursday in Baltimore.

“No woman should have to face losing her job in order to be free from sexual harassment and retaliation at work,” said Vanita Gupta, acting U.S. assistant attorney general for civil rights, in a statement. “The resolution of this lawsuit ensures that the Queen Anne’s County Sheriff’s Office will comply with federal law requiring employers to take prompt and effective corrective action to complaints of sexual harassment.”

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division intervened in the case under an agreement it has with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to take the lead in litigation involving job discrimination claims against state or local agencies, the department stated.

Queen Anne’s County Sheriff Gary Hofmann said Friday that “we are very glad this case has been resolved with no admission of fault by any of the parties.”

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, through spokesman David Nitkin, declined to comment on the tentative settlement, as it is pending before the Board of Public Works.

Roy L. Mason, an attorney for Murphy-Taylor, called her “a courageous woman who decided that she wouldn’t take what had happened to her without a fight.”

The consent decree that settled the case “sends the message that you have to treat women equally, you have to promote them equally, you have to investigate their complaints just as you would the complaints of anybody else,” said Mason, an Annapolis solo practitioner.

Mason added he is thankful for the Justice Department’s intervention and assistance.

Attorney Joel L. Katz, Mason’s co-counsel, said the settlement “should be a wake-up call that nobody is above the law. There will be a day of reckoning.”

Katz heads Joel L. Katz LLC in Annapolis.

Murphy-Taylor claimed in her lawsuit, filed Aug. 23, 2012, that she was fired the day after Hofmann’s brother, John Hofmann, pleaded guilty to second-degree assault in 2011. Murphy-Taylor sued the Hofmanns, the sheriff’s department, Queen Anne’s County and the state in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, alleging civil rights violations.

Murphy-Taylor claimed she was sitting in the passenger seat of a car being driven by John Hofmann in August 2009, when he forcibly reached down her pants with his right hand, removed it and then reached inside her blouse while she yelled for him to stop.

John Hofmann was arrested a year to the month later and charged with second-degree assault and a fourth-degree sexual offense based on information Murphy-Taylor had provided.

Hofmann pleaded guilty to second-degree assault on May 25, 2011, and was sentenced to probation before judgment after he completed a sensitivity training course and evaluation.

The next day, May 26, 2011, Murphy-Taylor received a certified letter from the sheriff’s office stating she was fired because she had exhausted her leave time, which the complaint added was “a blatant lie.”

Murphy-Taylor claimed the retaliation did not end with her firing, as Sheriff Hofmann and Major James L. Williams, a supervising officer and a named defendant, made “derogatory and offensive” statements about her personal and professional character to other law enforcement officers in an effort to ensure she did not find a job elsewhere.

The sheriff and the major subsequently “offered” Murphy-Taylor a low-level position in the office but told her that contact with John Hofmann would be unavoidable, her complaint stated. She turned down the offer.

In her lawsuit, Murphy-Taylor alleged the defendants violated her constitutional rights to due process and equal protection by condoning the sexual harassment she received and by terminating her without a hearing. The defendants also discriminated against her on the basis of gender in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, she alleged.

“The defendants … discriminated against plaintiff because of her gender by permitting said sexual harassment, placing her in a category separate from other public employees in that she was actually subjected to hostility by her superiors, which deprived her of an opportunity for advancement, and she suffered an economic deprivation and thus was deprived of her right to equal protection of the law,” the complaint stated.

Murphy-Taylor and her husband, Donald Taylor, a co-plaintiff, sought $3 million in compensatory damages and $7.5 million in punitive damages against the defendants.

The case is Murphy-Taylor v. State of Maryland et al., No. 1:12-cv-02521-ELH.