Officer alleges discrimination

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BRATTLEBORO — In a civil suit filed in federal court, a long-time Brattleboro police officer alleges she was subjected to "unlawful workplace discrimination" based on her gender.

Sgt. Penny Witherbee filed the lawsuit Monday in United States District Court for the District of Vermont, listing as defendants the town of Brattleboro, the Brattleboro Police Department, Town Manager Peter Elwell, Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland, Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald and Police Capt. Mark Carignan.

Witherbee, who was originally hired as a patrol officer in 2002, claims she was subjected to unwanted sexual advances by Carignan and Moreland and denied promotions due to her gender. In the lawsuit she alleges "disparate treatment in that she has been denied bonus payments received by similarly situated male colleagues" and has been subjected to discipline for conduct that "similarly situated male colleagues regularly engaged in without incurring discipline." She also claims she was "subjected to continual and frequent pejorative insults on the basis of her gender," according to the suit.

Witherbee is seeking "appropriate injunctive relief, compensatory and punitive damages" as well as costs and attorney fees associated with the lawsuit. Susan Edwards, of Wells, is representing her.

Elwell directed the Reformer to speak with the town's attorney Brian Monaghan of Monaghan, Safar, Ducham. Monaghan could not be reached by press time.

According to the lawsuit, Witherbee says she was assigned to calls influenced by her gender, which included being sent to domestic calls rather than calls related to violence.

Witherbee "was instructed by the chief, as her training officer, that 'if a male you are arresting does not want a female to handcuff him, have a male officer do it,'" the lawsuit says.

Before Fitzgerald was named chief, as an officer, he said he "would consent to share a desk with her but he did not want to be exposed to any 'girly stuff' on his desk,'" states the suit.

Witherbee also claims Carignan pushed her against a wall during a social event in July 2003 and attempted to touch and kiss her against her will and that Moreland hugged and kissed her against her will at the scene of a hit and run in December 2013. The filing states Moreland also stroked his hand up and down her back multiple times at a training event at Brattleboro Union High School the following month.

Complaints to supervisors "were not acted on and she became the butt of their jokes as to Mr. Moreland being 'her boyfriend,'" the lawsuit says. Witherbee "feared that she would suffer repercussions if she attempted to further pursue her concerns."

Moreland apologized and stopped such behavior after a mediation session in March 2014, according to the lawsuit. Witherbee also claims her supervisors did not receive any disciplinary punishment for protecting Moreland.

In 2008, Witherbee was promoted to sergeant. She claims other members of the department said it was only because she was a female.

Witherbee "found it difficult to assert supervisory authority in her new position because of the misogynistic attitudes of her supervisors and colleagues," the lawsuit says. She complained to Lt. Jeremy Evans regarding these attitudes "but he did not take any action."

Evans asked Witherbee in 2010 to truthfully tell a judge that a delay in applying for a search warrant had been caused by delays in the State's Attorney's Office, according to the lawsuit. Witherbee claims Fitzgerald refused to believe her even when Evans confirmed it, then demoted her as detective sergeant but did not penalize Evans.

Witherbee claims she later discovered Fitzgerald had agreed to replace her with a male colleague before the incident occurred. She says she was promoted to rank of lieutenant in April 2015 then demoted back to sergeant after her probationary period was canceled. One of the reasons for that demotion, the lawsuit says, was "failing to ensure that subordinate officers completed their daily case descriptions before finishing their shifts," which Witherbee claims is common, and that none of her male supervisors had ever incurred a disciplinary consequence for failing to correct this type of behavior.

After informing Fitzgerald she was in the process of complaining to the Equal Employment Opportunity Office in June 2017, Witherbee claims she was subjected to a full internal affairs investigation regarding the shooting of a cat she had believed to be rabid. She alleges male officers have not been investigated when shooting suspected rabid animals in the past.

Witherbee accused Carignan of becoming enraged and abusive during a meeting about her use of sick leave time in May 2017. Witherbee claims Carignan called her a liar and later asked another officer to add a negative comment to her review.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.

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