COLUMBIA — Two former employees of a Columbia women's shelter said they were wrongfully fired or demoted for reporting a sexual harassment incident to the board of directors, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Nancy Gause and Tracie Lawson were co-directors of True North Inc., a shelter for victims of domestic abuse that is part of a larger corporation called Comprehensive Human Services Inc. Gause reported to the president and vice president of the corporation's board of directors that Leigh Voltmer, then the director of the corporation, had inappropriately touched staff members under Gause's supervision on several occasions, according to a press release from the EEOC.
According to the press release, Gause was fired and Lawson was demoted to a lower-paying position within two weeks of making the complaint. The press release said both women had previously received positive feedback for their work performance.
Voltmer directly supervised Gause and Lawson, according to Jan Shelly, senior trial attorney for the EEOC. Shelly said Voltmer did not have the authority to take action against Gause and Lawson but said Voltmer was able to recommend disciplinary action to the corporation's board of directors, who then acted upon her recommendation. Gause then filed a complaint with the EEOC.
Shelly said Gause and Lawson's complaint was protected activity under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers from allowing a hostile work environment and from retaliating against employees who complain about unlawful practices.
The EEOC tried to reach a voluntary settlement with Comprehensive Human Services before filing the suit, according to the press release.
Both the executive director of Comprehensive Human Services and the office of defense attorney Robert Ortbals Jr. declined to comment on the lawsuit.