A former program director for Stevens-Henager College filed suit Friday in U.S. District Court, claiming her immediate supervisor made repeated, unwelcome sexual advances toward her in December 2010 while she and other colleagues were in Las Vegas on a business trip.
Court documents say that plaintiff Lee Berger, then associate dean of the Surgical Technology Program at both the Ogden and Salt Lake City campuses, reported the incident with her boss, Mario Merida, to the college's human resources office in March 2011, was demoted in April and then experienced a hostile work environment until she resigned in July of that same year.
Merida, Stevens-Henager's dean of Allied Health Sciences, is married with children a fact that Berger claimed made her feel safe. But around 11 p.m. on Dec. 3, Berger found herself alone with Merida after a business dinner on the town with other deans who had returned to their hotel rooms, leaving Berger and Merida to make their way back together.Passing by one of the shops, Merida offered to buy Berger a ring, which she says she declined.
As they paused near the Aria Hotel fountain, Berger said that Merida grabbed and kissed her. She responded by telling him his actions were unwelcome and highly inappropriate.
However, Merida allegedly persisted. Instead of going to his own room in the Monte Carlo Hotel, he allegedly followed Berger to hers, saying he wanted to "tuck her in." Forcing his way into her room, he allegedly climbed into bed with the fully clothed Berger, then kissed and fondled her. Berger claims she repeatedly told him no, but he lingered in the room until 4 a.m. and she locked the door behind him when he left.
The lawsuit said that Berger had been sexually assaulted as a teen, and Merida was aware of that fact. Upon her return to work after the incident, the lawsuit said she became ill, couldn't focus and did not want to face Merida or interact with him in the workplace. At one point, Berger said she asked him to explain his actions, and the answer he allegedly gave: "I just can't think straight when I'm around you."
Berger delayed reporting the incident until March 2011 due to fear, embarrassment and humiliation, the lawsuit says.
At the end of March, Berger was told an investigation was under way. However, the lawsuit says she was never interviewed as part of it. About one week later, Kent Keoppel, the college's chief human resources officer, invited her to a meeting and allegedly told her it was time "to put this matter to bed."
Berger was then demoted and stripped of her duties, the suit says, and her new job title as "site manager" had no defined responsibilities. In the weeks following, Berger said she was the subject of several threatening emails and was made to feel like an outsider.
Berger's suit names Stevens-Henager, Merida and the college's regional director, Vicky Dewsnup, as defendants and lays out several causes of action, including sexual assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, a hostile work environment and constructive discharge referring to the demotion that left her in a new position that had no real duties. The lawsuit also alleges that Merida and Dewsnup had told Berger to falsify data in accreditation reports.
Robert Sykes, an attorney based in Salt Lake City, is representing Berger in the federal lawsuit and has asked for a jury trial. Berger now resides in North Carolina and is employed as a surgical nurse, Sykes said.
In an email late Friday, Stevens-Henager CEO Eric Juhlin said that the college "is committed to upholding the highest legal and ethical standards for its employees and all those associated with the school."
"We will have no further comment regarding pending legal matters at this time," Juhlin said.