LANSING – A parole-probation officer has settled her sexual harassment suit against the Michigan Department of Corrections for $1.1 million.
Shannon Woods was featured in an April series in the Free Press about sexual harassment against female employees of the department and retaliation against many who complained.
U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn dismissed Woods’ lawsuit Tuesday under a $1.1-million settlement agreement, court records show.
Woods, who had also sued in Wayne County Circuit Court, complained she was repeatedly harassed by colleague Ryan Johnson. She alleged Johnson rubbed her shoulders, kissed her on the top of her head and texted her a photo of his genitals.
In settling both the federal and the state case, the department and other defendants admitted no wrongdoing.
“I think the settlement speaks for itself,” said Jonathan Marko, Woods’ Detroit attorney. “I’ve never had a case where the Michigan Department of Corrections voluntarily agreed to pay this much to right wrongs.”
Department spokesman Chris Gautz said the alleged incidents happened before the current department director, Heidi Washington, took office in July 2015.
“Director Washington takes very seriously the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace and has worked to create a culture where employees can feel safe in coming forward to report harassment,” Gautz said.
Johnson said he sent Woods the photo by mistake and told her not to open the file. He denied the other allegations.
But in its 2018 investigative series on sexual harassment inside the Department of Corrections, the Free Press said that Woods’ case might illustrate how much sexually harassing behavior the department tolerates before it acts. Johnson’s supervisor and other state employees, who, like Johnson, held positions with the state employees union, testified to Johnson’s history of harassing and inappropriate behavior.
Yet Marko said last year that Johnson’s personnel file showed he had never been disciplined for sexual harassment, up to and including what happened with Woods.
Gautz said Tuesday that Johnson’s conduct was reviewed “under previous department leadership” and he was not disciplined.
In rejecting arguments from the department that Woods’ suit should be dismissed, a three-judge panel of the Michigan Court of Appeals noted evidence that supervisors knew for years of similar conduct by Johnson, who, among other instances, was earlier investigated for exposing himself to three other female employees.
“They moved this guy around and then he finally landed at Shannon Woods’ job, and started sexually harassing her within the first week of being there,” Marko said.
Johnson’s supervisor, David Katz, testified in a deposition he saw Johnson in Woods’ cubicle, positioning himself on her desk with his crotch close to Woods’ face as she leaned away, but had only made a mental note of it as “an issue (he) might have to address.”
Katz testified Johnson was a known womanizer and problem employee who catcalled women at work but enjoyed certain protections because he knew people high up in the department. Katz, who didn’t respond to an email seeking comment, didn’t specify who the higher-ups were.
Supervisors testified the department merely told Johnson to stay away from Woods after she complained verbally in 2012. After Woods filed a formal complaint in December 2013, the department’s investigation cleared Johnson of wrongdoing, despite the fact the department didn’t deny the central allegations in 2018 court filings.
In a court filing, Assistant Attorney General Jeanmarie Miller, representing the department, argued Johnson took his “off-work conduct a bit too far” by texting her the offensive photo. She argued Woods voluntarily exchanged social emails with Johnson away from work and “Woods is the one who brought it into the workplace by complaining about it to her employer.” Prior to the offensive photo, “the only complaint Woods made with regard to Johnson was that he would occasionally sit too close to her in her work cubicle,” Miller said.
Further, “the only piece of evidence presented in this matter regarding what was known to MDOC prior to Woods’ complaint in December 2013 was a 2000 incident where (Johnson) exposed his penis to coworkers,” Miller said. “This single, 13-year-old incident hardly supports Woods’ assertion that it was ‘common knowledge’ Johnson sexually harassed female co-workers. …”
Johnson told the Free Press last year there was no discipline in his personnel record because no complaint against him has been upheld. He said he and Woods were friends but had no sexual relationship and he sent her the offensive photo by mistake. He said Woods and the other woman in her office who alleged inappropriate behavior are lying, that he and Katz don’t get along, that some stories about him came from union officials who didn’t want him to run for president, and the 2000 incident involved a consensual game of “Truth or Dare” with female coworkers away from the job.
“I would never sexually harass someone at work,” Johnson said.
Woods alleged the department retaliated against her after she complained about harassment, suspending her for 15 days in 2015 over a parking lot altercation with a citizen. Three corrections employees with experience in employee discipline testified the punishment was excessive and Woods’ supervisor testified that if it had been up to her, no discipline would have been pursued.
Woods is back at work and hoping to put the incidents behind her, Marko said.
Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @paulegan4.
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