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Judge tosses bulk of harassment suit

May 18, 2006 |

A state judge has agreed to dismiss five of seven counts alleged against Ohio University, in a lawsuit by an OU Police officer's wife who claims another officer sexually harassed her.

In her lawsuit filed in the Ohio Court of Claims, Cathy Sloane, 49, claimed that starting around spring 2004, OUPD Lt. Steve Noftz, who supervises Sloane's husband Greg Sloane, subjected her to "severe sexual harassment, gross sexual imposition, and sexual assaults in the form of inappropriate sexual comments, sexual touching and acts, and repeated requests for sex."

The harassment allegedly included phone calls to Sloane, a visit to her Albany home in which she claims Noftz tried to have sex with her, and an incident in an Athens retail store in which she accuses Noftz of touching her between her legs. She claims that when she resisted Noftz's advances, he threatened to retaliate against her husband at work.

An outside attorney hired by OU to investigate Sloane's case concluded in a report in March that the available evidence does not support her allegations against Noftz.

In a ruling issued May 11, Judge J. Craig Wright of the claims court agreed with OU's argument that Cathy Sloane cannot make a civil claim of sexual harassment by Noftz because she is not a university employee.

Sloane's attorney, had argued in an earlier memorandum to the court that though Sloane never worked for OU, this is not sufficient reason to dismiss her legal claims.

Sloane's attorney maintained that the claims are based on the legal principle of respondeat superior ("let the master answer"), which holds an employer liable for harms done by employees acting within the scope of their jobs.

Sloane's called it "abundantly clear" that in allegedly sexually harassing Sloane, Noftz was actually trying to strike at her husband. "Lt. Noftz sought to manipulate (Cathy Sloane) in order to interfere with and destroy the employment of (her) husband," he alleged. This brings OU into the suit as Noftz's employer, he contended.

Wright didn't buy it. Citing Ohio Revised Code section 4112.02(A), which designates sexual harassment an illegal discriminatory practice, the judge noted that "implicit in the statute is the requirement that the plaintiff be an employee of the defendant in order to bring a claim of sexual harassment. Here, plaintiff cannot meet this requirement because she admits that she was not an employee of (OU). Rather, her husband was the employee."

Based on Cathy Sloane's non-employee status, Wright dismissed counts 1 and 2 of her lawsuit, which alleged quid pro quo sexual harassment (in which tolerating sexual harassment is made a condition of employment, raises or promotions); and sexual harassment in the form of a sexually abusive work environment.

He used the same grounds to dismiss count 7 of the suit, which claimed that OU's actions constituted a breach of the state's public policy.

Wright then went on to consider counts 3 and 6 of Sloane's complaint, in which she alleges sexual imposition and battery. The judge dismissed both those claims because he said Sloane did not file them within the one-year statute of limitations deadline for the related criminal offenses.

The incidents in which Sloane alleges Noftz committed sexual imposition and battery against her were in summer 2004 and December 2004, giving her until the end of last year to file claims on the later one. She filed suit in late February 2006.

Sloane's attorney had argued that Noftz's "unlawful and abusive actions" were part of "a pattern and practice that did not end until March 2005," which would have given Sloane until March 2006 to file her suit on the assault and imposition counts.

OU had also asked Wright to dismiss count 5 of Sloane's suit, in which she alleges that Noftz assaulted her with allegedly threatening phone calls. The judge let this count stand, however.

Noting that the assault offense also has a one-year statute of limitations, Wright said he was "unable to determine from the complaint when Lt. Noftz last made a (an alleged) threatening phone call to (Sloane). For this reason, it does not appear beyond a doubt that (she) can prove no set of facts entitling her to recovery for a claim of assault."

Wright's ruling leaves Sloane's lawsuit with two counts, the assault claim and count 4, which alleges intentional infliction of emotional distress.

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