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Schuylkill County News

Schuylkill County Officials Accused of Harassment, Retaliation

Chief Tax Assessor and former HR Director named in lawsuit.

Another Schuylkill County government official is accused of sexual harassment and retaliation and a former Human Resources director is accused of retaliation in response to her complaints in a new lawsuit filed this week.

The Canary has obtained a complaint filed on March 4 in the US District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania titled Jane Doe v. Schuylkill County, Kent Hatter, and Heidi Zula.

The Jane Doe plaintiff in this new lawsuit is one of the four Jane Doe plaintiffs who filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against former Schuylkill County Commissioner George Halcovage and other County officials, including Zula, in 2021.

Hatter is Schuylkill County’s Chief Tax Assessor and Zula is a former HR Director for the County government.

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The Jane Doe filing this lawsuit is demanding a jury trial and seeking financial damages. She’s represented by Catherine Lowry, of Philadelphia, who also represents the Jane Doe Plaintiffs in the other sexual harassment lawsuit filed in 2021.

Jane Doe accuses the County, Hatter, and Zula of sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation, and creating a hostile work environment.

The accusations focus on a time shortly after Hatter was named Chief Tax Assessor for Schuylkill County. It all started with a meeting held between Hatter, Jane Doe, and a witness, who happens to be another of the Jane Doe plaintiffs from the previous lawsuit.

Since that meeting, the Jane Doe in this new lawsuit claims she has been subjected to unwanted harassing comments and retaliatory actions on the part of the County government to force her out of her job.

Here are the details of the lawsuit:

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Schuylkill County’s Chief Tax Assessor Accused of Sexual Harassment in New Lawsuit

Jane Doe was an employee in the Schuylkill County Tax Assessment Office when Hatter was brought on by the County in May 2021. He was her direct supervisor, according to the lawsuit.

Issues that led to this lawsuit being filed this week allegedly began on June 6, 2021, when someone identified as Witness Doe 1 requested a meeting between she and Jane Doe. That meeting took place at a County property known as the 410 Building, located on Centre St. in Pottsville.

It was during this meeting that Jane Doe says in her lawsuit that Hatter began making “unwanted and unwelcome sexually harassing and discriminatory comments” to her and Witness Doe 1.

According to the lawsuit, these are some of the comments Hatter is accused of making during that June 6, 2021 meeting:

  • “Consider me like a father, giving daddy advice. I will protect you; I will keep you safe.”
  • To Witness Doe 1: “Hey, were you a cheerleader?”
  • To Jane Doe (after reportedly eyeing her “up and down”): “You were probably a cheerleader, too, huh?”
  • Regarding a purported former female co-worker of his, Hatter reportedly said to Witness Doe 1: “She was attractive like you and had Farah Fawcett hair.”
  • To Witness Doe 1: “Do you read books? Or, let me guess, you are a Glamour magazine reader, right?”

The lawsuit also claims that during this same meeting, Hatter mentioned that he was aware Jane Doe was seeing a therapist. To that he said she “needed to get over it and start working more.”

Hatter then reportedly said to Jane Doe and Witness Doe 1, “I know what the two of you need. You need structure and routine in your lives.”

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At that point in the meeting, Hatter allegedly turned the discussion to another topic, TikTok. According to the lawsuit, Hatter reportedly said he believes women would rather make money from TikTok than work.

Witness Doe 1 then allegedly left the meeting room. That’s when Jane Doe says in her lawsuit that Hatter then asked her if she watched TikTok. She apparently said she didn’t, to which Hatter allegedly said, “It’s pretty good. It’s like soft porn.”

The lawsuit claims Hatter was “aware of the previous sexual harassment and retaliation Plaintiff Doe was subjected to by other (Schuylkill County) employees” and had not been required, at that time in his employment by the County to attend a sexual harassment training.

Reporting Their Complaint to HR; HR Investigation

According to the lawsuit text, Jane Doe and Witness Doe 1 immediately considered reporting their alleged harassment to Zula, who at that time was serving as the County’s Human Resources Director.

“Plaintiff Doe and Witness Doe 1 were fearful to report the unwanted and unwelcome conduct from Defendant Hatter as they, as two of their colleagues, had recently experienced retaliation by (Schuylkill County) for unrelated reports of sexual harassment,” the lawsuit reads.

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But on June 7, a day after that meeting with Hatter in the 401 Building, Witness Doe 1 allegedly reported via email the sexual harassment she and Jane Doe had been subjected to by Hatter.

By the next day, Witness Doe 1 hadn’t received a reply from Zula so a follow-up email was sent. That same day, according to the lawsuit, Zula responded and wanted to meet with Witness Doe 1 to discuss the accusations against Hatter.

Zula reportedly requested to schedule a meeting with Jane Doe, too. However, Jane Doe responded and said she wasn’t available to meet that day due to work obligations.

A meeting for June 10 was scheduled as a result. On June 10, Jane Doe reportedly emailed Zula saying she “was not comfortable with a union steward” at that meeting “because of the sensitivity of all that was going on.” Instead, Jane Doe wanted to have an “unbiased witness of her choosing” at the meeting with Zula.

Zula reportedly denied that request and told Jane Doe that Andrew Kozlosky, an AFSCME representative, could be available to sit in on the meeting.

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Jane Doe did not take kindly to Zula’s denial and “questioned Zula’s impartiality and position regarding an independent witness,” according to the lawsuit.

“I am concerned about your impartiality and retaliation that you may engage in as a result of my claims. I am requestion I be treated equally or, at the very least, be provided a legitimate reason that I am not permitted to have a witness of my own choosing,” Jane Doe wrote to Zula.

Jane Doe also mentioned another reported instance in which another County employee and co-worker of hers, Kathleen Gillespie, complained, Zula reportedly had someone else conduct an investigation into those complaints and instead, sat in as an independent witness, according to the lawsuit text.

Zula reportedly responded to that by again notifying Jane Doe that her request for an independent witness was denied. She also reportedly said that if Jane Doe failed to participate in the meeting on her terms, the investigation into the complaint against Hatter would conclude without her input.

The lawsuit notes that Witness Doe 1 also went through a similar back-and-forth with Zula regarding an independent witness during a meeting with the HR Director and was also denied.

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Despite the denials, Jane Doe and Witness Doe 1 met with Zula and made formal complaints against Hatter for the HR Director’s investigation on June 10, according to the lawsuit.

By June 21, neither Jane Doe or Witness Doe 1 had heard about any progress on the investigation and inquired about it to Zula. Zula reportedly responded, “The investigation into the complaint that you made regarding your meeting with (Hatter) is still ongoing. You will be advised when the investigation is completed.”

Requesting to Work From Home Denied

In that same response from Zula, the HR Director reportedly denied each employee’s request to work from home.

However, the lawsuit claims that each employee followed County policy in requesting their supervisor – in this case, Hatter – allow them to work from home. This request happened after the two employees filed their complaint with Zula, according to the lawsuit. It was denied by Hatter.

They claim in the lawsuit that other County employees have been permitted to work from home but they were being denied as retaliation for their complaints against Hatter.

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“Hatter denied (Jane) Doe and Witness Doe 1’s request to work from home because he knew forcing them to come into work would cause them severe distress and fear for their safety,” the lawsuit claims.

On June 21, Hatter reportedly emailed Witness Doe 1 about her clock-in time ata the office, saying “I am told (the Courthouse) is monitored and we need to make sure your hours worked are the same as when you are in the building.”

Hatter also reportedly “warned” Jane Doe that Schuylkill County Administrator Gary Bender “was watching her hours and (her) hours should correspond with her hours worked in the Courthouse,” according to the lawsuit text.

Both Jane Doe and Witness Doe 1 say their work “often required them to work from a location other than the Courthouse” and that Hatter’s warning was “irrational and implausible.”

They also say, in the lawsuit, that they were “fearful learning that (County) employees always knew their exact whereabouts.” They also believe that Hatter monitoring their in and out at work was retaliatory in response to their complaints of his alleged harassment.

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July 20 Meetings

On July 20, more than a month after the initial complaint against Hatter, Jane Doe and Witness Doe 1 each had meetings with Hatter and Zula.

During Jane Doe’s meeting, she was reportedly reprimanded and received a written warning, according to the lawsuit.

Hatter reportedly said to Jane Doe during that meeting, “What do you want me to do, bring your dead boyfriend back?” This was apparently in reference to Jane Doe losing a boyfriend due to a suicide, according to the lawsuit, which Hatter knew about when he allegedly made the comment.

Jane Doe claims Hatter made this comment “because he believed that, as a woman, (she) was being too emotional about the loss of her boyfriend.”

In his meeting with Witness Doe 1, Hatter reportedly got “visibly enraged and even slammed his fists on the table,” according to the lawsuit.

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The lawsuit claims that during this meeting with Witness Doe 1, Hatter and Zula were going to issue a written warning to her but it was delayed because of Hatter’s alleged outburst. Eventually, that written warning was issued on Sept. 13, the lawsuit claims.

A Work Escort

On about Aug. 20, 2021, Jane Doe says in her lawsuit that Hatter approached her at work and said she “was doing a good job; even Stevie Wonder could see how much she improved.”

Apparently, the nature of this alleged comment is something Hatter says to male employees, too, according to the lawsuit.

That same day, Jane Doe tried to reach Deputy Chief Assessor Chrissy Zimmerman to coordinate meeting outside the Courthouse to escort her to work “to obtain work.”

This is an arrangement apparently agreed to by Jane Doe, Zimmerman, and Hatter. However, Zimmerman allegedly never responded to Jane Doe.

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Jane Doe claims this is because Hatter told Zimmerman not to respond to her request, saying Jane Doe “should be a problem solver and figure it out on her own.”

She claims this alleged interference impeded her ability to do her job with the County.

The lawsuit also claims that Jane Doe and Witness Doe 1 hadn’t been informed of the results of the initial investigation into their claims against Hatter from Zula at that time.

Also, it wasn’t until Dec. 21, 2021, that both were permitted to work from home.

Loudermill Hearing

On Feb. 15, 2022, Jane Doe was informed that she had been scheduled for a Loudermill Hearing on the 17th of that month.

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A Loudermill Hearing is an opportunity for a public employee to have their side heard before an employer makes a decision on their job status or disciplinary action.

The Loudermill Hearing in February was apparently to discuss “unapproved absences” from work, the County told Jane Doe, according to text in the lawsuit.

In that hearing, Jane Doe and her union representative requested the County give her a laptop which would allow her to do her job from the road and at home. The County reportedly denied that request.

On March 14, 2022, Jane Doe was notified that she’d have to serve a 5-day unpaid suspension.

Quit? Fired? Resigned?

On Aug. 24, 2022, Jane Doe got an email from then-HR Director Andrea Whelan that had a letter dated the day prior attached. The letter reportedly reads, “This letter is to advise you that you have been absent from work without leave or approval since Wednesday, April 27, 2022,” and the County “has no alternative but to determine that you have abandoned your Field Appraiser position and have voluntarily resigned your position with” the County.

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The day after getting that email, Jane Doe emailed Whelan and informed her that she hadn’t resigned from her job and “any separation from employment has been both forced and calculated by (the County) as further proof of ongoing retaliation that myself and the others have been subjected to since (the County) became aware of our intent to file a lawsuit in May 2020.”

To explain the alleged absence from work, Jane Doe informed Whelan that in late-April, she had been told not to enter work into a computer system until “balancing” was completed.

She said that “I was never informed that balancing was completed nor was I given the OK to resume work. I did not have any additional work to complete,” according to the lawsuit.

Further, she said that in May 2022, a list of all the Schuylkill County municipalities and the Field Appraiser assigned to each area was distributed and she wasn’t on it. In a message to Whelan, Jane Doe said, “I was omitted from this list, which is evidentiary of (the County’s) intent to sever my employment as early as May 2022.”

Jane Doe says she got a bigger hint that she wasn’t welcome at work anymore when Hatter requested vehicles for the Tax Assessment office – 3 Subarus – but that request didn’t include a vehicle for her to use.

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In early-September of 2022, Jane Doe’s resignation was listed on a Personnel Action Report (PAR) for a Schuylkill County Commissioners meeting. Jane Doe says in the lawsuit that she told Commissioner Gary Hess that she was not resigning from her job.

During the actual Commissioners meeting, the resignation was discussed but no vote was taken on it. That same day, Jane Doe emailed Hatter and Whelan to notify them that she wasn’t voluntarily resigning from her job. The email, she says, was sent from her personal address because the County allegedly shut off her County email.

The day after that, Hatter allegedly told Jane Doe she would need to file a grievance with her union. However Jane Doe says in the lawsuit that Hatter did not follow the “Grievance Procedure” which allegedly requires him to provide a grievance form or engage her in a conversation to resolve the issue at hand.

Eventually, Jane Doe did file a grievance form but was never given a Loudermill Hearing and was not reinstated to her job with the County.

All Other Avenues Exhausted

Before filing this lawsuit in federal court, Jane Doe filed charges of discrimination with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.

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On Dec. 5, 2023, the lawsuit claims the US Dept. of Justice-Civil Rights Division granted her the ability to pursue a civil lawsuit against those she’s accusing.

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  1. Val

    March 8, 2024 at 2:31 pm

    It was the same article yesterday with at least 5 comments. What happened to the comments?

    • Canary Commenter

      March 9, 2024 at 9:52 pm

      We had to pull the equivalent of a fast one because the original post was getting stifled by Facebook, which brings in a significant amount of traffic. Facebook was blocking the ability to share the original article. So, we redirected the original post on this site to another post with the exact same text but a slightly different title. Unfortunately, that sacrificed the comments. Sorry about that.

  2. Chris

    March 10, 2024 at 10:48 am

    Given the explanation by Canary regarding comments to the original article, I’ll give it another try. Here we go again! Let’s revisit a statement that was issued in 2020 by the County Solicitor’s Office (regarding Commissioner Halcovage’s behavior): “If this investigation involved a County department head, the department head would be suspended immediately pending investigation followed by a recommendation of employment termination.” Has Mr Hatter been “suspended immediately pending investigation”? How will the commissioners handle the situation with Mr Hatter, under the watchful eye of the DOJ?

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