County sued for sexual harassment; is the case an act of revenge?
Salt Lake County • Workplace harassment claim called retaliation.
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A former victim advocate who worked in the state's 3rd District Court system is suing Salt Lake County, alleging she was subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace when a female co-worker — among other incidents — made inappropriate gestures with a pickle.

Jenny M. Lewis outlined her claims against the county in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court this week. Lewis, who began as a volunteer victim advocate and was then hired as a part-time paid employee in June 2008, alleges co-worker Nubia Pena made sexually suggestive comments to men at work that made her uncomfortable.

But Pena, reached at her office in the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office on Wednesday, denied the allegations. She said Lewis has filed a case based on lies and suggested that Lewis, disgruntled over being fired from the office, is now seeking retribution.

Pena said Lewis filed sexual harassment claims against several co-workers prior to her termination, but claimed a detailed county investigation exonerated everyone of the alleged wrongdoing.

"I'm surprised she is taking this through the civil route. I have an upstanding reputation. It breaks my heart," Pena, a victim advocate for eight years, said of the lawsuit. She said she is saddened Lewis is marring her reputation through a case she believes will be dismissed as it continues through court.

Lewis' lawsuit cites several episodes of alleged sexual harassment. She alleges that shortly after starting as a paid employee in June 2008, while going to lunch with Pena and two other victim advocates, the women passed a sergeant who saluted the group.

One of the women supposedly asked the sergeant, "What else is standing at attention?" the lawsuit claims.

The women laughed, but also acknowledged that they needed to be careful of making comments related to a sexual nature, the suit states.

Lewis asked a supervisor about the county's sexual harassment policy after the encounter with the sergeant. Lewis never received a copy of the policy from the supervisor, according to the suit.

In July 2008, Lewis claims she walked in on an awkward situation at the sheriff's Holladay precinct when several victim advocates were eating lunch with a detective who had a pickle. Pena spoke to the detective using "extremely sexually-suggestive language regarding the pickle," which appalled Lewis, the suit states. Lewis claims Pena also made sexually-explicit motions with the pickle and drew a picture of a pickle on a dry-erase board.

The same day, Lewis claims, Pena took a Playboy magazine from a detective's drawer and asked the officer if he enjoyed the content.

On another day at the Holladay precinct, Pena made comments about having a sexual escapade on a county conference table with an attorney, Lewis claims.

Pena said Lewis has fabricated her accusations. Several witnesses who were eating lunch in the room when the conduct allegedly occurred have corroborated that there was no inappropriate behavior, Pena said.

She said there was a discussion about a Playboy located in a detective's office — but that the victim advocates were discussing how vice operations are carried out with the officer.

She said victim advocates would never engage in the conduct described by Lewis because of the nature of their work.

"We work with sex crimes. We work with children who are sexually abused," she explained.

Pena said she wonders if Lewis' lawsuit is an attempt to get back at former co-workers.

The lawsuit states Lewis was ostensibly terminated from her position for allegedly falsifying mileage expenses, but suggests Lewis actually was fired because she sought to bring sexual harassment complaints against employees in the office.

Lewis, who is being represented by attorneys Andrew Stavros and Crystal Flynn, is suing based on claims of sexual harassment, retaliation, violation of the equal protection clause, violations of the due process clause and breach of contract.

The case has been assigned to U.S. Magistrate Paul Warner.

mrogers@sltrib.com

Twitter: @mrogers_trib