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Fired employee who filed sexual harassment claim sues ND Health Department for retaliation

BISMARCK - A North Dakota Department of Health employee who was fired after complaining about sexual harassment in the workplace is suing the agency in federal court for retaliation, and a $40,000 settlement was reached with another employee who ...

BISMARCK – A North Dakota Department of Health employee who was fired after complaining about sexual harassment in the workplace is suing the agency in federal court for retaliation, and a $40,000 settlement was reached with another employee who claimed age discrimination and retaliation.

The lawsuit brought by former autopsy assistant Ranae Kunz claims she suffered loss of income, mental anguish, emotional distress and other damages in excess of $75,000. She’s also seeking unspecified punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.

Kunz, who was hired in October 2011 and was on temporary employment status, filed an initial complaint with human resources in June 2015, claiming harassment and two instances of unwanted touching, both involving the same male co-worker placing his hand on her back.

An internal investigation substantiated the second incident but not the first, and the male co-worker was fired in July.

Kunz alleged that in retaliation for complaining about the harassment, she was harassed further and reassigned from her regular duties in the office.

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She filed a discrimination complaint last July with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that also claimed sexual harassment by a male supervisor.

The department fired her in late October for her “unwillingness to participate in attempts to improve the work environment,” including backing out of a mediation session, according to her termination letter.

The EEOC issued Kunz a notice of right to sue, and she filed the lawsuit April 6 in U.S. District Court in Bismarck.

“Many of the allegations in the termination letter were false or misconstrued what events … had occurred in the past” in an effort to give the department an excuse to retaliate against Kunz by firing her, the lawsuit stated.

The state denied that allegation in its answer, arguing that Kunz fails to show how the state violated any of her federal rights and that she hasn’t suffered any injuries and isn’t entitled to damages.

Attorneys for Kunz had not returned phone messages seeking comment. Health Department spokeswoman Colleen Reinke said the department generally does not comment on lawsuits.

A scheduling conference in the lawsuit is slated for Monday.

The department reached a $40,000 settlement agreement earlier this year with former microbiologist Sandra Young, who accused the Health Department of age discrimination and retaliation in complaints filed in summer 2014 with the state Department of Labor.

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Young was fired in May 2015 after a six-month-long investigation by Human Resource Management Services. She and Timothy Brosz, a former lead analyst in the microbiology lab, had claimed retaliation – including negative performance reviews – for comments they had made about the lab and its leadership during an investigation into a sexual harassment claim against Young.

In the settlement agreement, the Health Department said it “denies any wrongdoing and merely intends to avoid litigation.” The settlement was paid with state general fund dollars.

Young’s husband, Chris Young, said they weren’t satisfied with the settlement but had gotten to the point where “quite frankly, it was just damaging to our family and very expensive.”

“They have all the resources to destroy the credibility and reputation of employees who bring forth honest concerns, and that’s what they did,” he said, adding, “There needs to be a better process here.”

Brosz, who was stripped of his lead analyst role and demoted in May 2015, has since retired. The Labor Department issued a “no probable cause” determination on his complaint in April, according to Kathy Kulesa, the agency’s human rights director.

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