Colorado correctional officer sues prison captain over alleged sexual harassment

DENVER – A female correctional officer is suing a prison officer and the Colorado’s executive director of the state Department of Corrections in federal court over claims the officer sexually harassed her, and that she was retaliated against when she cried foul.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court of Colorado over the weekend on behalf of Leticia Cornella, who first took a job with the Department of Corrections in September 2015.

In the suit, Cornella accuses Scott Lancaster, who was her supervisor, of sexual harassment. Department of Corrections Executive Director Rick Raemisch is also named as a defendant in the suit.

Cornella is seeking back pay, punitive damages, reassignment and court and attorneys’ fees should a judge decide in her favor that she was harassed and subjected to discrimination at work.

According to the lawsuit, Cornella, 46, had a one-time sexual encounter with Lancaster shortly after she started working with him at the Limon Correctional Facility.

But she decided that the relationship shouldn’t continue since Lancaster was her supervisor, which the suit says Lancaster also agreed with. But the suit accuses him of backpedaling on that agreement, and eventually subjecting Cornella to ongoing harassment.

“It is the rare case in which a sexual encounter between a supervisor and his or her underling leads to a stroll into a romantic sunset of marital bliss,” the suit says. “More often, the results of such an encounter leads to what has occurred in this case: misunderstood motives, unnecessary fear of reprisal and, most harmful of all, the exercise of power and dominance by a male supervisor over the future employment opportunities of a female employee.”

After Cornella told Lancaster that she did not want to have any further sexual encounters with him, Lancaster “assured…that he understood,” according to the lawsuit.

But she “was wrong,” according to the suit, which says that Lancaster started making advances on her again a couple months later. When she rebuffed him, according to the suit, “[h]e then stormed out of her office, enraged. He would not, he said emphatically, be ignored.”

Even when Cornella met her now-husband, according to the suit, Lancaster continued to make advances. While the three were all hanging out one time, Lancaster allegedly made lewd comments and gestures toward Cornella in front of her husband—one of which she recorded on her cell phone, the suit says.

And he continued to retaliate against her at work, according to the suit, calling her a “porn queen” in front of other staffers at one point last June.

Cornella put in a transfer request, but Lancaster was instead transferred to the prison in Canon City, and Cornella dropped her transfer request.

But according to the suit, Lancaster continued to prod her to have her come join him in Canon City—offers she refused.

And months later—in September 2016—Lancaster transferred back to Limon. Cornella was assigned to be his administrative assistant and would be working directly with him.

The lawsuit says that Lancaster’s behavior “escalated” immediately upon his return, and that he “began to stalk” her, suggesting they should hook up and that Cornella should “just [do] what she was told.”

He was assigned to perform her annual performance review, and the suit says that Cornella feared he would use the review to retaliate against her for denying his alleged advances.

He would stare at her often and try to be close to her, according to the suit, and his behavior “increased to the point of obsession,” she claims.

Last November, according to the suit, Cornella filed a formal complaint against Lancaster, after which she was moved to a different office and told that Lancaster was to have no further communications with her, and that all were to go through a major at the prison.

But the suit claims that didn’t happen, and when she complained to the prison’s warden, he allegedly told her to “get over it.”

“Warden Falk essentially gave Lancaster license to do whatever he pleased if he did not touch Cornella or say anything explicitly inappropriate to her,” the suit says.

In January, an investigator assigned to Cornella’s complaints found he couldn’t charge Lancaster with sexual harassment because the original encounter between him and Cornella was consensual, the lawsuit says.

But Cornella’s lawyer, Denver attorney David H. Wollins, argues that Lancaster again gained power over Cornella because of that judgment: “From that moment forward, Ms. Cornella was a marked woman,” he writes in the suit.

Cornella filed a discrimination charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity office in February, claiming that her work environment “had become so hostile that no reasonable woman” would be able to work in Cornella’s job. But the suit claims it did nothing to help.

“February and March 2017 were among the most miserable months of Ms. Cornella’s life,” the suit says, adding that Lancaster continued to invade her space.

Wollins says that the anxiety and stress at work eventually led a doctor to advise she take a week off, and diagnose her with “severe depression and anxiety.”

Upon her return, she requested not to have any contact with Lancaster—but the request was denied. She had already exhausted her paid time off, sick leave and FMLA leave.

And a transfer request to DOC headquarters has so far not been accepted, so Cornella currently remains employed by the department, but is not assigned to any positions and is not being paid. She has gotten a part-time job in the meantime, according to her attorney.

“DOC officials are taking the position that Ms. Cornella is at fault for the hostile work environment,” the suit says.

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