State parks sexual harassment lawsuit can go forward, Tennessee Court of Appeals rules

By: - March 18, 2021 4:01 am
Paris Landing State Park (tn.gov)

Paris Landing State Park (tn.gov)

A sexual harassment lawsuit against the state of Tennessee by a woman who claims she was assaulted by a supervisor at a staff Halloween party in Paris Landing State Park will be allowed to go forward, the Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled.

Kelly Phelps is one of at least five female state employees who alleged they were sexually harassed, groped or propositioned by the park’s assistant manager, Josh Walsh, at an employee Halloween party or at an after-party in the west Tennessee state park in 2017.

Phelps is one of two women, both waitresses at the park’s restaurant, who filed suit against the state over alleged sexual harassment. Both women claimed they suffered retaliation when they reported the alleged incidents.

The second woman, Christen Patterson, entered into an undisclosed settlement with the state in July. Phelps’ case was dismissed before trial.

The appeals court decision vacates a ruling in Phelps’ case by Circuit Court Judge Thomas Brothers last March, who concluded that the sexual harassment Phelps endured took place in on “private property” and was “unconnected to work.”

The alleged behavior took place in the home of a state parks’ maintenance worker located on state property in the park. It occurred after employees walked to the home after an employee Halloween party at the parks’ restaurant, according to court records. In the case of the woman who settled, the alleged behavior occurred during the employee Halloween party.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled a high ranking park employee encouraged other employees to drink jello shots and other alcohol, classifying the harassment as work-related.

Once at the maintenance workers’ home, “Walsh grabbed (Phelps) around the neck, pulled her into his body, and rubbed his semi-erect penis into her buttocks….then ‘dry-humped’” her, Brothers noted in his March ruling.

But, Brothers concluded, the state “cannot be liable for the actions of Mr. Walsh on the private property of Keith Littles,” the maintenance worker who hosted the after-party. 

The Court of Appeals ruling, issued last week, sets aside Brothers’ decision.

The appeals court found that the proximity of the maintenance worker’s home to the workplace, the pressure on employees to attend the Halloween parties and the role of Walsh —then the highest ranking park employee —in encouraging employees to attend the party and the afterparty, and to drink jello shots and other alcohol, were enough of a basis for a judge to consider the alleged sexual harassment as workplace related. The appeals court also found that claims of retaliation made by Phelps, who described feeling intimidated by Walsh after the incident and was reprimanded for the costume she wore at the party, were sufficient to warrant a trial.

“We are very pleased that the Tennessee Court of Appeals reinstated this important sexual harassment case,” said Jason Lee, Phelps’ attorney.  “I look forward to continuing to try to get justice for my client in this terrible situation.”

Officials with the state’s Department of Environment and Conservation did not respond to requests for comment. 

Walsh could not be reached for comment. He was suspended without pay between February 25 and March 10, 2017, then terminated the following month.

A trial date in the case has not yet been set.

(Featured photo:Paris Landing State Park tn.gov)

 

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.

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