INDIANAPOLIS - Indiana's prison agency mistreated a female employee when it shrugged off her complaints about workers having sex on her desk and when it later fired her for having an affair with an official, a federal appeals court has ruled.
In a mixed ruling Monday, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to federal court in Indianapolis, which had ruled against substance abuse counselor Connie J. Orton-Bell and in favor of the state. The appellate court ruled in Orton-Bell's favor except for her claim that the state had retaliated against her because of her gender.
Orton-Bell said in court documents that the atmosphere at the maximum-security Pendleton Correctional facility was saturated with sex from its leaders on down. The prison superintendent when Orton-Bell started working at Pendleton in 2008 was fired for having an affair with a staffer from the prison infirmary, court records said.
"From the second you walk into that building, that is all you are hearing until the second you leave," Orton-Bell said in court documents.
In 2010, Orton-Bell discovered that night shift employees had been having sex on her desk. The internal affairs investigator allegedly suggested she simply wash off her desk every day.
That was about the same time officials learned that Orton-Bell was having an affair with Maj. Joe Ditmer, who was in charge of custody at Pendleton. Both were initially suspended and then were fired on April 8, 2010.
Both appealed their terminations to the State Employees' Appeals Commission, and Ditmer, a 25-year veteran of the Department of Correction, was allowed to keep his benefits and pension. Orton-Bell's appeal was denied and in court records she said she even had trouble collecting unemployment benefits.
The state attorney general's office declined to comment Wednesday. The Department of Correction declined to comment to The Associated Press.
The appeals court's three-judge panel found that the "unending barrage of sexually charged comments" made the work environment hostile, as Orton-Bell claimed, and found that the state discriminated against her by treating her differently than Ditmer.
"They were certainly treated differently," the court said, adding that the Department of Correction "fails to provide any reason it did not offer Orton-Bell the same settlement terms it gave Ditmer."
However, the panel denied her claim that she had been fired and treated differently in retaliation to her complaints because she was female.