Taxpayers to pony up $184K in settlement of sexual harassment suit against Tom Schedler

Graft, Lies & Politics: A Monument to Corruption.

December 13, 2018 by Tom Aswell (Louisiana Voice)

There is an interesting story in today’s Baton Rouge Advocate (click HERE to read the story) about former Secretary of State Tom Schedler.

It seems that in addition to being forced from office by his settlement of a sexual harassment lawsuit, his successor, Kyle Ardoin, diverted $90,000 in state funds earmarked for computer upgrades to pay Schedler’s portion of the settlement.

That’s questionable use of public funds by practically any definition I know but beyond that little indiscretion lies a more fundamental question and that is just why was the state on the hook for the bulk of the payout for his behavior in the first place?

Schedler resigned in May of this year in the wake of accusations that he had sexually harassed a female employee for years.

The woman filed suit against Schedler and the state and the case was settled in August for $167,500, plus another $35,000 in attorney fees.

Of that $202,500 total, Schedler personally paid only $18,425 with state taxpayers picking the remaining $184,075–$90,450 covered by the secretary of state’s office and $93,625 by the Office of Risk Management, the state office that insures all state agencies in cases of legal liability.

But why would taxpayers be called upon to foot the bill for nearly $185,000 for personal actions committed by Schedler?

That was the question posed by a reader who said, “We need somebody to pass a law that anybody settling a sexual harassment case related to their employment with the state has to pay ALL of it from their own pockets. If Schedler wasn’t 100 percent responsible for this, who was, the state? And who, in this case, is the state?

Good questions all and an observation that cuts the heart of the legal issue.

To our reader’s advocacy that a law needs to be passed, he’s correct—except the law is already in place. It’s just not applied by judges who preside over these cases.

There is even a legal term (Latin, what else?) that addresses this very case.

RESPONDEAT SUPERIOR is the Latin phrase for “Let the master answer.” While it is an English Common Law doctrine (Louisiana’s laws are based on the Napoleonic Code), it would still apply in Schedler’s—and others’—cases if only the judges would apply the principle.

Established in the 17th century, the doctrine was adopted in this country and has been broadly applied in agency law. Literally, Respondeat Superior means the employer (in this case, the state) is liable for the injuries caused by an employee who is working within the scope of his employment relationship (emphasis mine). The person who does the work for the employer is the agent and the theory behind the law says the principal (employer, or agency) controls the agent’s behavior and must then assume some responsibility for the agent’s actions.

It means that if, as a state employee, your supervisor or legal counsel directed or advised you to do something later determined to be illegal, then the state would be liable for any fines, courts costs, etc. If, however, you did something illegal at work that was not work-related (harassment or assault of a subordinate, stealing from the coke machine, extortion, etc.), then you and you alone should be held liable for any damages imposed. If, the first case, the court had imposed a $50,000 fine, the Office of Risk Management would be responsible for paying the penalty. In the second case, if you were fined (whatever amount), the full responsibility for payment should fall upon you because what you did was not job-related, or within the scope and authority of your job responsibilities.

The question then becomes was the employee (Schedler) acting within the scope of employment during his off-the-rails behavior. The answer, of course, is certainly not.

That is the sticking point here and, in a case involving LouisianaVoice a few years back. We sued Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols over her failure to provide public records in the time prescribed by law. LouisianaVoice won the case and Nichols was personally assessed financial penalties. But she appealed, lost and eventually settled with LouisianaVoice. But the state paid for all her attorney fees at the state and appeal court levels as well as for the settlement itself.

The judge held her personally liable because she did not rely on the advice of the DOA legal counsel in dragging out her response to our records request. She was not, the court deemed, acting “within the scope of her employment” by delaying production of the records. Still, when push came to shove, it was the state, i.e. taxpayers, that paid in the end.

Same with Schedler. Sexual harassment certainly is never within the scope of anyone’s employment. Therefore, what Schedler did, he did as a freelancer, not as part of his duties as an employee (or in this case, the very head of the agency). Accordingly, he should have been held personally liable for all damages and legal costs.

That he was not speaks to the inexcusable laxity exercised by the court system in this case. This was the ideal chance for the judiciary to send a clear message to public servants—and employees in the private sector—that acting outside the boundaries of their job descriptions has consequences.

Sadly, that opportunity was missed.

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