Sexual harassment suit against county dismissed

Nov. 17—Cumberland County has completed the terms of a sexual harassment civil lawsuit settlement, and the case has been officially dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee.

The dismissal, approved Oct. 3 by Magistrate Judge Alistair Newbern, brings an end to the county's litigation in the civil lawsuit as the criminal charges against former solid waste supervisor Michael Harvel remain pending a Dec. 6 federal trial date.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a federal lawsuit in March 2021 claiming the county failed to take adequate actions to protect employees and community service workers in the solid waste department from sexual harassment by Harvel.

The county paid a $1.1 million settlement to 10 women who previously worked for the county's solid waste department. Settlements ranged from $50,000 to $190,000.

The county also hired a human resources director and updated policies and training related to sexual harassment in the workplace.

The motion to dismiss filed by the county and Department of Justice notes the settlement agreed to federal monitoring for 18 months following the agreement.

"Cumberland County has fulfilled all of its obligations under the decree," the motion to dismiss states.

Cumberland County Attorney Philip Burnett explained the dismissal with prejudice ensures the lawsuit will not be brought back to the court.

According to the lawsuit, four individuals filed charges against the county with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging they and other female employees of the solid waste department were discriminated against when they were subjected to sexual harassment by their supervisor, Harvel.

The individuals were employees of the solid waste recycling center and community service workers assigned to the facility for court-ordered service work.

The suit alleges Harvel grabbed or groped women in various areas of the body — over and under clothing — encouraging inappropriate touching of himself and unwanted and unsolicited advances and propositions. Some of the women say Harvel isolated them in secluded areas of the recycling center or outside the facility, including convenience centers and the Cumberland County landfill. Several employees say he made unwelcome sexual advances toward them. One of the women who complained to the EEOC said Harvel forced her onto his lap and threatened to rape her, according to the complaint.

The DOJ also alleges the county retaliated against one of the women for complaining to the EEOC.

The suit alleged the county's sexual harassment policies were ineffective and did not require supervisors to report incidents of sexual harassment or permit informal complaints. The policy was also only distributed to full-time employees, and no training was provided.

The lawsuit states several of the women reported harassment by Harvel to their supervisors, but their complaints did not lead to any action by the county. Others said they did not complain because they were unaware of the complaint process, believed there would be no action, and feared reprisal.

Harvel was indicted by the Cumberland County Grand Jury in February 2018 on two counts of assault, one county of official misconduct and one count of sexual battery.

Following the indictment, Harvel was placed on paid administrative leave by former Cumberland County Mayor Kenneth Carey Jr. In March 2019, following the completion of the EEOC investigation, Harvel was fired from the county.

The state charges were put on hold in July 2021 when a federal grand jury indicted on nine counts of civil rights violations. Charges include allegations of sexual assault and kidnapping. The original indictment was replaced in November 2021 by a superseding indictment with 11 counts. However, federal prosecutors sought one count of kidnapping be dismissed, saying it could fall outside the statute of limitations.

Harvel has remained in federal custody since his arrest in July 2021. The case is set for trial Dec. 6.

Harvel's attorneys filed motions earlier this month to dismiss the criminal case against him, saying federal prosecutors delayed seeking an indictment, and to have the 10 remaining counts severed and tried separately.

The attorneys claim the delay in seeking a federal indictment allowed some evidence to be lost, including testimony from a former Crossville Police detective and former solid waste department employee, both of whom died prior to Harvel's federal indictment.

The attorneys also say video surveillance footage from prior to Feb. 8, 2018, was not preserved. That footage that could have rebutted some of the accusations, the attorneys said.

The motion to seek separate trials on various counts notes that the case involves eight victims alleging acts that took place over a four-year period. According to the motion, the case does not include "neutral" witnesses of physical evidence, but the testimony of the victims. Attorneys argue that there is a risk evidence from one charge will "spillover" into the other charges and that jurors may determine the credibility of witnesses based on the combined testimony.

Federal prosecutors have opposed those motions, which are pending before District Judge William L. Campbell Jr.

Heather Mullinix is editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.