Philadelphia officials have agreed to pay $127,500 to a former employee of the Sheriff’s Office who last year sued the city, claiming that repeated sexual harassment by Sheriff Jewell Williams rendered her emotionally broken and caused her to quit her job.
“The City of Philadelphia was the defendant in this case. The decision to settle was made by the Law Department. The settlement was in the best legal interests of the city after a careful analysis of the case,” a spokesperson for the Law Department said in an email Wednesday.
Lauri A. Kavulich, a lawyer representing Williams, 61, said Williams had no part in the decision to settle the suit brought by Marlaina Williams (no relation), 35, who was employed in the Sheriff’s Office in a variety of assignments from February 2013 to June 2017.
“The parties in the case decided to settle prior to the case proceeding. It does not mean that the allegations are true. The sheriff was prepared to fight this more aggressively,” Kavulich said.
The settlement led Mayor Jim Kenney to renew a call for Williams to resign from the office he has held since January 2012 and to which he is seeking reelection.
“I have previously called for the sheriff to step down following multiple credible complaints of sexual harassment. In light of this latest settlement, my position remains the same. It is extremely important that all women feel safe and respected in their workplace,” Kenney said in an email Wednesday.
“That’s why last year I announced an update to the administration’s sexual harassment prevention policy and governing executive order," he said, "as well as an expansion of the sexual harassment training program and a new online complaint form to better protect and support city employees. I urge all independently elected officials in Philadelphia to adopt policies and procedures that are just as strong.”
The mayor first called on Williams to step down in November 2017, when the Inquirer and Daily News reported on Marlaina Williams’ allegations and those of Vanessa Bines, a Sheriff’s Office employee who filed a lawsuit claiming that Sheriff Williams sexually harassed her from 2013 to 2015. Bines is still employed by the office.
The Law Department spokesperson declined to comment about Bines' suit, citing “the ongoing litigation in this matter.”
The Mayor’s Office of Labor Relations last year substantiated Marlaina Williams' allegations following what it called a “thorough investigation” involving interviews with the sheriff and other witnesses. The investigation concluded that the sheriff had made inappropriate comments that violated the city’s sexual harassment policy.
In her statement, the sheriff’s lawyer pointed to changes in department policy regarding sexual harassment.
“Sheriff Williams does not tolerate sexual harassment or discrimination in the Sheriff’s Office. To that end, the Sheriff’s Office underwent sexual harassment training in January 2018,” Kavulich said. “Since that time, the office has also commissioned an independent review of the policies and procedures of the Sheriff’s Office to ensure the office is doing its best to protect against harassment.”
In response to the investigation findings, Williams issued a statement denying the allegations. “I would hope that people would let due process prevail, because I am sure that I will be vindicated in the final analysis,” the statement said.
The lawsuits filed by Marlaina Williams and Bines followed a 2011 lawsuit filed by a woman who accused Williams of similar behavior when he was a state representative from the 197th District in North Philadelphia. The Democratic caucus of the state House settled that suit with the woman in 2012 for $30,000.
In her lawsuit, Marlaina Williams said the sheriff “expressed his sexual interest” in her through comments and on multiple occasions summoned her to his office and tried to kiss her.
She alleged that by December 2013, the harassment changed after the sheriff became aware she was in a relationship with another employee. The sheriff expressed his disapproval, she wrote, by saying, “I’m jealous that he gets to go home with you and not me.”
Other statements attributed to him included “You should leave him and be with me,” and “I haven’t had sex in two years, so if I’m not happy no one’s gonna be happy.”
In a complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in September 2017, her lawyer, Steven Auerbach, wrote: “As a result of her employer’s conduct, complainant suffered a panic attack in June 2016 and was rushed to Thomas Jefferson" University Hospital. "Since then, she has suffered related health issues as a consequence of the discrimination … which she was forced to endure.”
Marlaina Williams, who is Muslim, also alleged that the sheriff made anti-Muslim statements.