Ashland Parks & Rec sued for $750K in damages

The entrance to the Oak Knoll Golf Course at the southeast corner of Ashland. Ashland.news photo by Bert Etling
February 26, 2022

City, five employees also named in suit claiming discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation and age

By Stephen Floyd for Ashland.news

Allegations of sexist, ageist and homophobic behavior by Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission employees are cited in a suit filed in Jackson County Circuit Court on Feb. 21 by the superintendent of Oak Knoll Golf Course.

The 57-page complaint against APRC, called Ashland Parks and Recreation Department in the suit, also cites the City of Ashland, APRC Director Michael Black, three other APRC employees and one city employee as defendants.

It alleges harassment and discrimination throughout her 18 years with the city by male co-workers who believed her gender and sexuality disqualified her from her position. The suit says she’s still employed by the commission.

The suit, filed by Ashland attorney Thomas Dimitre on behalf of Laura Chancellor, seeks damages in the amount of $750,000, an injunction preventing further harassment and any other awards deemed fit by a jury. Claims made in civil suits represent only one side of a case that has to be proven in court.

Ashland Mayor Julie Akins said she has been advised by legal counsel not to comment on the lawsuit at this time.

Suit claims misogyny

The suit claims Chancellor and other women within APRC have historically been marginalized or mistreated, such as in 2010 when Chancellor was promoted to golf course superintendent and was given an hourly wage 22 percent lower than outgoing Superintendent Drew Moyers.

Even after completing certification specific to the position, the suit says, Chancellor was not offered a raise and continues being paid less than male counterparts, some of whom she out-ranks, and as recently as September of last year Black discouraged Chancellor from pursuing a merit-based pay increase.

The city also has a pattern of employing men unable to control their anger around women, the suit claims, including Moyers, who would allegedly yell and scream at Chancellor when upset and, when forced to apologize to Chancellor in 2008 after firing her without authority during a tirade, Moyers allegedly increased his hostility. Former Parks Superintendent Bruce Dickens was also described as belligerent toward women, with the suit describing how five women, including Chancellor, worked for the department when Dickens was hired in 2013, and when he resigned three years later Chancellor was the only female employee left.

“Over the past decade, numerous female employees of the APRD left their jobs due to the harassment,” said the suit. “Some retired early, some found other jobs in order to get out, and others left with no other job set up, they were so desperate to get away from the harassment. The number of female employees in the APRD is at a historically low level.”

Allegations she was targeted by ‘Four Horsemen’

The suit also claims Chancellor was targeted personally by numerous co-workers for being female, a lesbian, and a woman in a position of authority. Specifically, the suit names a group of men in APRC it says are known as the “Four Horsemen”: Director Black and employees Jason Minica, Chris Ward and Joseph Hyde. 

The suit claims Ward has verbally and physically harassed Chancellor repeatedly, including tossing office supplies in her face while she was having a conversation with someone else in her office, telling her homosexuals should be “hung on the cross and burned,” in addition to derogatory comments in general about women, homosexuals and people of color. The suit said Chancellor made multiple complaints about Ward to Black, who said Ward was “just a child in a grown man’s body and he meant no harm.” 

Chancellor’s co-workers also allegedly cut her out of her role as golf course superintendent by having staff and vendors go to Minica, Black or Golf Clubhouse Manager Patrick Oropallo for decisions about golf course management and improvements.

“Defendants have been taking away Plaintiff’s supervisory duties, such as no longer

allowing her to sign her employee’s timecards, and no longer allowing her to schedule her employees,” the suit alleged. “In addition, she is no longer the superintendent of the golf course, except in name.”

Numerous other claims leveled against APRC include repeated instances of new vehicles being purchased for employees while Chancellor received a used vehicle or no upgrade, understaffing at the golf clubhouse despite funding in the budget for additional employees, denial of opportunities for Chancellor to attend job-related training and conferences, Hyde sweeping and mopping the floor of the golf shop except the space around Chancellor’s desk, and everyday casual comments degrading Chancellor due to, the suit says, her gender, sexuality and age.

“Every day Plaintiff continues to wonder what misogynistic or offensive sexual orientation comments will be made towards and about her,” said the suit. “Every day, Plaintiff’s stomach is in knots, knowing that she will be disrespected again and again, simply due to her gender and her sexual orientation.”

City employee also mentioned

Outside the Parks and Recreation Commission, Chancellor said the harassment continued, specifically by mechanic Mark Trenton, whom the suit alleges would lose his temper when Chancellor or another woman broke something, but not when male coworkers did the same. Chancellor also allegedly overheard Trenton complaining to coworkers in the break room that Chancellor “didn’t know what she was doing, and women are not smart enough to be in charge.”

Chancellor also said Human Resources Director Tina Gray, interim City Administrator Adam Hanks, and City Attorney Dave Lohman, ignored multiple complaints from Chancellor and other women by not taking corrective actions, such as when Micina was made Chancellor’s direct supervisor in 2020 despite his history of hostility, and despite being denied a promotion in 2018 after a report form Gray said Micina was “not suitable for the position because of his harassment of women in the workforce.”

The lawsuit specifically names Black, Minica, Ward, Hyde, and Trenton as defendants, in addition to the city and the commission. Chancellor is seeking damages for discrimination, harassment, and retaliation based on age, gender and sexual orientation, as well as wage discrimination, retaliation for opposition of lawful practices and whistleblowing, failing to maintain a safe workplace, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Black, Minica, Ward, Hyde, and Trenton are separately accused of aiding and abetting of harassment, discrimination and retaliation.

 “There are numerous women and men who will testify about and confirm the hostile work environment due to gender and sexual orientation, and also about the women who have left Ashland Parks due to this hostile work environment,” said the suit. “Many of these other employees also complained to Ashland HR, the City Administrator and the City Attorney. Still, no investigation was done, nothing changed, and many of these women quit in disgust and frustration.”

No hearing dates or other court appearances have yet been scheduled.

Settled previous suit

In 2019, the city settled a suit filed by another APRC employee, Christine Dodson, which she filed after she was dismissed in October 2017 after 14 years with the commission as manager of the Senior Center. She sought $1.1 million for what she claimed was termination in retaliation for having “spoke(n) out on behalf of Ashland’s most needy senior citizens” during a reorganization of the senior program, among other complaints. Director Black was also named in that suit, along with the city and one of the park commissioners.

The city’s insurance carrier ended up paying her $538,000. The city admitted no liability, but sent her a letter, signed by Black and the then-city administrator, saying her separation “could have been handled better,” and praising her work on behalf of Ashland senior citizens.

Email freelance reporter Stephen Floyd at sfloydmedia@gmail.com. Ashland.news Executive Editor Bert Etling contributed to this report. Email him at betling@ashland.news, or call 541-631-1313.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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