August 4, 2014

Chester County deputy files sexual harassment lawsuit against sheriff

Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood sexually harassed and then discriminated against a female deputy for more than a year, the deputy alleges in a lawsuit.

Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood sexually harassed and then discriminated against a female deputy for more than a year, the deputy alleges in a lawsuit.

Capt. Mary Anne Tolbert says in the lawsuit, filed Friday in the county’s civil court, that Underwood coerced her to have sex with him on numerous occasions between February 2013 and October 2013, then retaliated against her when she would not allow it to happen anymore.

The lawsuit alleges Underwood sexually assaulted and battered Tolbert over those eight months and inflicted emotional damage on her for 14 months. It claims she has been on medical leave since April, unable to return to work because of “severe stress and anxiety” related to the incidents.

Tolbert’s attorney, Janet E. Rhodes of the Columbia law firm Callison Tighe, declined to answer questions about the lawsuit, including whether Tolbert had filed a criminal complaint against Underwood.

Underwood issued a statement after 5 p.m. Monday denying Tolbert’s claims.

“The allegations are completely false, and I look forward to vigorously defending them through trial, if necessary,” he said. “I would love to comment on this, but I have been advised by my attorney not to do so at this time.”

Underwood referred questions to James M. Davis Jr., an attorney with the Columbia law firm Davidson & Lindemann who specializes in “law enforcement defense” and “governmental liability defense,” according to the firm’s website. Efforts to reach Davis were unsuccessful Monday night.

Prior to Underwood’s election as sheriff in November 2012, he and Tolbert were acquainted and had a relationship that turned physical, on and off, for about a year, according to the lawsuit. Just before Underwood was elected, the lawsuit claims, Underwood approached Tolbert in the sheriff’s office parking lot and asked her if she’d like a position in the investigations unit.

Just after he was elected, the lawsuit alleges, Underwood “made clear” to employees that people who got on the wrong side of him would lose their jobs.

Over the next few months, additional duties were added to Tolbert’s job. She started supervising the investigations unit, was put in charge of narcotics, evidence and victim’s services and paid bills for the office. These additional responsibilities put Tolbert under a lot of stress, the lawsuit claims.

The harassment began in February 2013, the lawsuit says, as Underwood would create opportunities to be alone with Tolbert, including working in his office and riding together in a county vehicle.

“The number of times (Underwood) said and did inappropriate things during this time period are too many to list, as they were virtually constant,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit describes several instances of inappropriate behavior by Underwood and alleges that Underwood coerced Tolbert to have sex with him outside a car twice and in several homes, including Underwood’s, which he shares with his wife, and the home of Chester Police Chief Andre Williams.

Efforts to reach Williams were unsuccessful Monday.

The lawsuit says that during months of sexual harassment and battery, Underwood led Tolbert to believe she would lose her job if she didn’t have sex with him, and Tolbert “felt horrible, degraded and powerless to refuse because she feared that she would lose her job.”

In October 2013, the combination of the harassment, battery and heavy workload caused severe panic attacks, the lawsuit claims, prompting Tolbert to take two weeks of medical leave. When Tolbert returned to work, Underwood put her in charge of the county’s 911 system, according to the lawsuit.

That was when Tolbert “made it clear” that she was not going to be coerced into having sex with Underwood any longer, the lawsuit says, prompting him to criticize her work and instigate arguments with her in front of other staff members.

When the position of chief deputy became available in August 2013, Tolbert was passed over for the position, despite being promised the job and already supervising most of the divisions in the sheriff’s office, the lawsuit states.

The job instead went to Capt. Robert Sprouse, who had not applied for the position and was less qualified, according to the lawsuit.

Efforts to reach Sprouse were unsuccessful Monday.

Underwood’s retaliation against Tolbert continued for several months, the lawsuit claims, and included falsifying a disciplinary write-up, berating and yelling at Tolbert and refusing to respond to her work-related texts and emails.

In April, Tolbert went to Chester County’s human resources office and was placed on medical leave for stress and anxiety, the lawsuit states.

Tolbert is seeking unspecified actual and punitive damages.

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