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December 16, 2011

County pays $100,000 to woman in job bias case

Cleveland--Just under three years after filing a discrimination suit against Cuyahoga County, a Willowick woman will receive a $100,000 settlement.

Shari Hutchinson says she was turned down for promotions and raises, and was given low performance evaluations after supervisors found out that she is lesbian and had written saucy adult fiction under a pen name.

Hutchinson and her attorneys announced the settlement on December 7, twelve days shy of the third anniversary of filing the suit.

She worked for seven years in the Cuyahoga County Support Enforcement Agency before suing the county. She has a master’s degree in business administration, but was assigned to positions below her skill level, and supervisors would remove long-standing job postings once they learned she was interested in them. After complaining about it, she was assigned to different positions in which she had no training or experience.

In one instance, an administrator allegedly refused to recommend her for a temporary position, telling managers she was “bizarro.” A less experienced heterosexual woman was eventually given the position, and a separate consultant had to be hired to help fulfill the position’s responsibilities.

Her suit also challenged a then-new county policy that provided a $100 per paycheck credit to married employees who were covered under their spouse’s insurance plans, but only gave $50 to unmarried people who opted out of county-provided insurance benefits.

In April, U.S. District Judge James Gwin rejected the part of the suit over the insurance compensation, but said that the rest of the lawsuit could go forward. He said that, while the federal Title VII civil rights law “does not include sexual orientation as a statutorily protected class,” it “does not, in this court’s view, automatically remove all constitutional protection where a plaintiff employee claims equal protection violations based on her membership in that class.”

Cleveland’s 1994 ban on anti-gay bias in employment, housing and public accommodations was changed in 1996 to allow criminal charges to be brought in cases of job discrimination, but it is seldom enforced.

Gwin ruled against the county’s attempts to have the case dismissed in September, and decided that the case should be heard by a jury. That decision spurred  county attorneys into negotiating a settlement.

As part of that settlement, Hutchinson said she is not allowed to work for a county department, with the exception of judicial offices.

County Law Director Majeed Makhlouf refused to comment, telling the Plain Dealer, “The settlement speaks for itself.”

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