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City settles lawsuit for $300K

by David Showers | March 14, 2017 at 4:00 a.m.

A former employee of the city's solid waste department received a $300,000 settlement Monday in her federal discrimination lawsuit against Deputy City Manager Bill Burrough and other city officials.

Margaret Hillistad filed the lawsuit in September 2015 against Burrough, Assistant City Manager/City Clerk Lance Spicer, Solid Waste Director Randy Atkinson and Information Systems Director Jeff Winter. She alleged that while serving as acting solid waste director, she was passed over for the director position that ultimately went to Atkinson as a result of a sexual harassment claim she lodged against Burrough in the summer of 2014.

The city settled a related lawsuit in November for $175,000. Plaintiff Bill Boyles received $91,160 to drop his claim that he was fired from his managerial position in the solid waste department in retaliation for corroborating Hillistad's allegations against Burrough. The $83,839 balance of the settlement paid his attorney fees.

The city and the Arkansas Municipal League each paid half of the settlement. City Attorney Brian Albright said the city and Municipal League will also each pay half of Monday's settlement. The city pays a $2,503 annual service charge, which includes legal defense services, to the Municipal League. Its attorneys represented the city in both lawsuits.

The city will pay its share of both settlements from its solid waste fund, according to budget resolutions the Hot Springs Board of Directors adopted after the settlements were reached.

According to Hillistad's complaint, she was retaliated against for the allegations of sexual harassment she lodged with the city's human resources department against Burrough in the summer of 2014. She had served as acting director for two years after Burrough was promoted from solid waste director to deputy city manager, the complaint said. The alleged retaliation first became apparent in her being passed over for the director position and found its ultimate form in her termination, the complaint said.

In the interim, she applied for Boyles' former position of commercial manager but was denied "in favor of a male that defendant admits was less qualified, who was less senior, had less experience and less knowledge of the job. This was directed by all individual defendants," the complaint said.

Hillistad filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and alleges the defendants violated the Family Medical Leave Act by firing her without notification that she had exhausted her leave time, the complaint said.

"Plaintiff has now been fired while on leave for her disability at the direction of defendants Atkinson, Spicer and Burrough, without progressive discipline, in violation of normal policies and procedures which required that they contact her about her time off, which they did not do," the complaint said.

Hillistad claims other employees who were in jeopardy of exhausting their sick leave were warned beforehand. The complaint said Hillistad filed a grievance, but that normal procedures were not followed because Burrough, Spicer and Atkinson "lied about their motivations" for firing her.

The complaint named Winters as a defendant for his role on the committee that heard Hillistad's grievance. The complaint said Winters, "the highest manager" on the committee, didn't allow it to "examine if gender, disability or retaliation were a factor, or how normal practice and policy treated workers who missed work."

The complaint didn't specify Hillistad's disability but said it proceeded from her work environment, which the complaint characterized as "permeated by sexual harassment."

"Hillistad had gone through severe emotional distress as a result of years of discrimination and retaliation and had treatment from a psychiatrist, including multiple visits over the course of a year, prescription medications, and she developed difficulties in thinking, concentrating, and sleeping that were considerable, often feeling sad, angry, nervous, irritable and frustrated and being unable to stop thinking about what had been done to her."

The city settled Boyles' lawsuit before its motion for summary judgment could be decided. Albright said Monday that the potential for "material facts at issue" dissuaded the city from seeking a summary judgment in Hillistad's lawsuit. Albright said attorneys had yet to put the settlement or release of claims against the city in writing.

Monday's agreement was reached after a two-hour settlement conference in the Hot Springs Division of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas. Magistrate Judge Barry A. Bryant ordered the two sides back into negotiations after they were unable to come to terms during a settlement conference in November.

U.S. District Judge Susan O. Hickey granted the request Hillistad made earlier this month to extend the discovery deadline from Monday to April 14.

Local on 03/14/2017

Print Headline: City settles lawsuit for $300K

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