West Virginia Record

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Taking a stand led to firing, former TSA screener says

By Lawrence Smith | Nov 4, 2011

HUNTINGTON – The nation's homeland security chief is accused in lawsuit of allowing unprofessional behavior to fly low under radar at one of the state's largest airports.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is named in a six-count wrongful termination suit filed by Gina Simmons Oct. 27 in U.S. District Court. In her complaint, Simmons, 39, of Huntington, alleges she was fired as a Transportation Security Administration screener in 2007 after reporting multiple acts of sexual harassment by co-workers, and at least one supervisor, in her five years with the agency.

According to her suit, Simmons started with TSA in 2002 working at Tri-State Regional Airport near Kenova in Wayne County. Shortly after beginning her job, Simmons alleges she was sexually harassed by several co-workers including Carl "Butch" Berlin.

On an unspecified date in 2003, Simmons reported the incidents to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Though her complaint was dismissed, her suit maintains Berlin was later terminated "for similar conduct."

Following Berlin's termination, Simmons says her "working conditions improved, and she received several awards and commendations."

However, that came to an end in 2005.

In her suit, Simmons alleges that's when her new supervisor Paul Lude, began harassing her. She alleges the harassment started with Lude first saying how she looked like a woman he previously dated, then escalated into conversations about having sex.

When she rebuffed his advances, Simmons says Lude became angry and threatened her for not talking with him. Lude, Simmons alleges, went so far to issue a memo that all employees would be disciplined if they did not take off-duty calls on their TSA-issued phones after she refused to take some of his calls.

According to her suit, Simmons alleges Lude would deliberately go the airport "early in the morning, to stalk [her], and to watch her as she got off work." Also, Simmons alleges Lude would call her into his office for one-on-one meetings often lasting two hours in which he would ask question about who she was dating.

Between September and December 2006, Simmons alleges the harassment escalated to Lude grabbing and hugging her, and calling her at home telling to say he loved her. In early 2006, Simmons alleges Lude first threatened to deny her any leave if she did not discuss her personal life with him, then later with termination if she did not write a recommendation for a friend of his.

On an unspecified date, Simmons says she received a verbal warning from Lude's supervisor, Ralph Walker, for refusing to take Lude's calls. About that time, Simmons alleges Lude made good on his threat to deny her leave requests, and "attacked her by spreading rumors of sexual encounters between [them] that included graphic detail about sexual positions."

Following complaints she made to Walker about his conduct, Lude was removed as the screening manager in September 2006. The suit does not specify if he was fired, transferred or forced to resign.

Nevertheless, Simmons applied to fill his vacancy. When interviewed, she says Walker asked her if she could do the job despite being a single mother, and one who regularly attending church on Sundays.
According to the suit, Walker chose Shelly Parsons for the job. Parsons was unqualified for the job, Simmons alleges, since she had not been in her previous job for at least a year.

Upon becoming screening manager, Simmons says Parsons "immediately began laying a paper trail in the form of write ups with the intention of having [her] terminated." Between November 2006 and July 2007, Simmons says Parsons wrote her up no less than nine times.

With the exception of Walker's verbal warning, Simmons maintains prior to that she had no disciplinary problems. In fact, she "received many awards and commendations."

Also, Simmons says Parsons made her work on Sundays. She says on one occasion, Parsons told her, "'You need to think of religion as a hobby. It's like hunting and fishing.'"

Because of the abusive behavior from TSA management, Simmons says she began seeing a psychologist. In April, Simmons applied for, and was granted leave under the Family Medical Leave Act.

However, prior to her return, she was terminated. The date of her termination was July 27, 2007, her birthday.

In her suit, Simmons makes claims against Napolitano for sex, and religious discrimination, retaliatory discharge for filing her EEOC complaint, and taking her FMLA leave and disability discrimination. The latter was a result of TSA management being aware she was seeking treatment for anxiety and depression which resulted in her seeking leave.

Also, Simmons makes a claim against Napolitano under state law for not receiving her final paycheck within 72 hours following her discharge. She alleges it arrived three weeks after her termination.

Simmons seeks unspecified damages, including front and back pay, interest, attorney fees court costs and triple damages under the state Wage Payment and Collection Act. She is represented by J. Patrick L. Stephens with the Underwood Law Offices in Huntington.

The case is assigned to Judge Robert C. "Chuck" Chambers.

U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia case number 11-cv-801

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