You may have seen a brief report on WNEP-TV recently: “Settlement reached in Halcovage lawsuit”.
That’s not true. A settlement has not been reached in this case. However, some of the parties involved in the lawsuit against Schuylkill County government and some government officials have agreed on terms of a settlement.
But a settlement, which requires a Court order, has not been approved.
This is the story currently on the WNEP website and mirrors a report that was aired, at least once, on the 11 p.m. Thursday news broadcast on that station.
In the image above, you can see the misleading headline indicating that a settlement was reached in this case.
But it doesn’t give the whole story. In fact, it barely gives a tenth of the story here.
The image below shows the text of the story WNEP is reporting and that leaves a lot of questions unanswered and lots more to ask.
Now, in defense of WNEP, the story is written for an audience much larger than Schuylkill County. And a majority of the station’s viewers don’t really care about the inner-workings of Schuylkill County government.
Most of them probably don’t even know how to get to Pottsville.
But if you, in Schuylkill County, saw this story, you might think this whole saga (bar the impeachment drama in Harrisburg) was over.
That’s hardly the case.
Fact Check: Settlement Not Reached in “Halcovage Case”
The first blatant error in this brief story is the reporting of a settlement being reached. That’s false.
Now, what’s true is that two parties have agreed to terms of a settlement. But the article from WNEP does not specify which parties they are.
Obviously, one of those is Schuylkill County government. It’s the defendant in the initial lawsuit filed by 4 Jane Doe employees at Schuylkill County Courthouse.
Their lawsuit alleges that they were subject to years of sexual harassment (and more) from Commissioner George Halcovage. And further, it alleges Courthouse officials were complicit in this behavior.
But to call this the “Halcovage case” is very misleading. Even if the settlement is agreed to by a federal Judge, only a portion of the lawsuit will be settled. And that is certainly not the “Halcovage case.”
Fact Check: It’s the DOJ Case – But It’s Not Settled, Not Just Yet
It’d be more appropriate to call the potential settlement in this matter the “DOJ case” against Schuylkill County.
After the initial lawsuit was filed, the US Dept. of Justice was granted the right to intervene in this case and brought its own allegations against Schuylkill County government.
And in terms of the latest with this entire case, the settlement terms agreed to by the Schuylkill County government – the Commissioners approved that on Wednesday – and the DOJ later in the week, have been submitted for Court approval.
That’s where the WNEP story leaves a big misleading gap. It doesn’t mention the specific parties involved in the settlement negotiation. And, of course, it falsely reports that a settlement was reached.
The WNEP story does mention that the Justice Dept. announced that a settlement was reached. However, that’s not true, either.
The Justice Dept. did, on Friday, announce that it “secures resolution” in this case. But the statement from the DOJ mentions that terms of the settlement still have to be approved by a Judge.
So, What’s in the Potential Settlement?
The terms of the settlement agreed to will not affect the original lawsuit filed against Halcovage, other officials, and the County government, as a whole.
In fact, Catherine Smith, the attorney for the 4 Jane Doe plaintiffs in the case, say her clients weren’t even involved in the settlement negotiations.
“My clients were not parties to the Consent Decree negotiations, and they continue to pursue their claims against the County as well as the individual Defendants,” Smith says in a statement to The Canary.
First and foremost, in agreeing to the terms of the settlement, the County and officials named in the lawsuit, admit no wrongdoing or guilt. And any portion of the settlement agreed to does not, in any way, affect the still remaining portion of the lawsuit between the 4 Jane Doe plaintiffs and the County.
Instead, the proposed settlement between the DOJ and Schuylkill County government focuses more on workplace processes and policies.
Again, this proposed settlement could be rejected by US Magistrate Judge Martin C. Carlson.
If approved, however, the County is agreeing to the following terms:
It will not “engage in any act or practice that discriminates against any employee or applicant on the basis of sex in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 …
Yeah, well, that’s pretty much the law already.
… It will select a County employee to serve as its Equal Employment Opportunity Office (EEO Officer) within 30 days of the settlement …
The County must notify the DOJ of who is selected. And the DOJ must approve the County’s selection.
Sounds like someone at the Courthouse is probably getting a raise.
That EEO Officer will then be responsible for mitigating future Title VII violation complaints from employees.
The Officer must undergo a minimum of 32 hours of training within 90 days of accepting the position. They must follow up the initial training with another 8 hours annually.
… It must pay for a consultant – picked from a DOJ-approved list – to help craft anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policies and conducting anti-retaliation training …
Well, we know the Courthouse excels at hiring outside consultants, so agreeing to this part of the deal must have been a breeze for the County’s legal counsel in these sessions.
Let’s just hope none of the consultants on the DOJ’s list are friends of County officials.
The consultant hired by the County will have 240 days to “design a workplace climate survey” that will be given to all County employees. That survey is designed to gather information about “harassment and retaliation” in the workplace.
Based on the results of that initial “climate survey” the consultant will have the option to order a follow-up survey.
This whole process can carry on for about a year. And remember, this consultant is being paid on the County’s dime.
All these surveys culminate in a consultant’s report that will include recommendations for improving the workplace atmosphere, draft policies, and draft training materials.
The policies the County will need to approve and implement involve:
- Prohibited forms of harassment and retaliation,
- An anti-retaliation policy,
- The ways an employee can log a retaliation or harassment complaint with the County,
- Ensuring the accusing employee does not have to face their alleged harasser,
- Ensuring employees who miss work time while their complaints are investigated do not lose wages,
- Documenting all complaints filed by employees,
- Requiring supervisors to “promptly” report all complaints to the EEO Officer,
- Requiring the County to thoroughly and promptly investigate all claims of harassment and retaliation and have a clear policy and process for investigating these complaints, including not having an investigator be under the direct or indirect supervision of the alleged harasser or retaliator.
If the settlement is approved as currently written, the County will also be required to take some remedial actions:
The County must identify multiple ways of disciplining an employee or elected official who’s guilty of harassment or retaliation.
The County must implement a policy that mandates notification within 10 days of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives that an elected official has been rightly accused of sexual harassment or retaliation – by its own investigation – so that it can contemplate impeachment.
The County must also execute training sessions on sexual harassment and workplace retaliation, based on materials submitted by the consultant.
Training sessions for all employees and specific sessions for supervisors must be conducted every 9 months, per the proposed settlement. Sessions for complaint investigators should happen every year.
The County Commissioners must also address all employees and supervisors on an annual basis “about the importance of maintaining a workplace free from prohibited forms of harassment and retaliation.”
The Halcovage Part of the Settlement
The proposed settlement also calls out Commissioner Halcovage, specifically, and makes special requirements of him.
This is one reason why Halcovage probably voted against approving this settlement proposal on Wednesday.
Here are the rules spelled out in the proposed settlement docs we’ve obtained:
- Commissioner Halcovage shall not abuse, harass, stalk, or threaten the Jane Doe Plaintiffs in any place where they might be found.
- Commissioner Halcovage shall not directly contact the Jane Doe Plaintiffs by telephone or by any other means and any contact between Commissioner Halcovage and the Jane Doe Plaintiffs which is necessitated by the Jane Doe Plaintiffs’ employment shall be accomplished by a third party.
- Commissioner Halcovage shall comply with both the Pennsylvania Public Official and Employee Ethics Act and the County’s Ethics Policy when the County Board of Commissioners votes on matters which impact any of the Jane Doe Plaintiffs.
- Commissioner Halcovage shall undergo personal training on sexual harassment and retaliation which will be developed and administered by the Consultant that the County retains pursuant to paragraph 10 above. Commissioner Halcovage will receive this training within 90 days from the date of entry of this Decree.
- This Decree does not require the County to restrict Commissioner Halcovage’s access to any portions of its premises except the County must enforce the restrictions it has already imposed which are described in the letters from the County Commissioner Halcovage may not enter the offices of the County Departments where any of the Plaintiffs are employed, which currently include the Tax Claim Bureau and Tax Assessment Office. (NOTE: Two of the Jane Doe Plaintiffs have actually been hired by the Clerk of Courts office while they serve a suspension from their jobs at the Tax Claims office.)
- The County must comply with Title VII when it assigns the Jane Doe Plaintiffs to work locations and/or when it makes any other decisions regarding the terms and conditions of their employment. The County may not, for instance, impose on the Jane Doe Plaintiffs a “materially adverse” schedule change so that they do not come into contact with Commissioner Halcovage.
- If during the period of this Decree Commissioner Halcovage ceases to be an elected County official, the County shall not permit him to enter the offices of the County Departments where any of the Plaintiffs are employed, which currently include the Tax Claim Bureau and Tax Assessment Office.
The lawyer for the Jane Doe plaintiffs says of the required policy changes proposed in the settlement offer in the DOJ case, “We are cautiously optimistic. Should the Court approve the Decree, we are hopeful that the proposed changes will allow those who have been victims of sexual harassment, retaliation, or any type of unlawful workplace conduct to speak up and speak out against it. We are also hopeful that the proposed changes will prevent such unlawful conduct to occur in the future.”