Judge denies LRC's claim for legislative immunity in sexual harassment lawsuit brought by staffers

12/16/2014 02:16 PM

Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate has denied the Legislative Research Commission’s claim of legislative immunity in a lawsuit brought by two female staffers accusing the agency of mishandling their complaints of sexual harassment by a former lawmaker.

Wingate, in an order issued Thursday, found that legislative immunity only applied to lawmakers “in speech or debate” in the General Assembly, not the legislative branch agency. What’s more, legislative immunity cannot be invoked in allegations brought under the Kentucky Civil Rights Act, Wingate ruled.

“Immunity only extends to legislative actions,” Wingate wrote in the order. “Regardless of whether LRC is (former Rep. John) Arnold’s employer (or single-employer under plaintiffs’ theory), under no circumstances is sexual harassment an official legislative function.”

Wingate’s order can be viewed here: LRC Dec. 11 order.pdf

Thomas Clay, an attorney for legislative employees Yolanda Costner and Cassaundra Cooper, said Wingate “hit the nail right on the head” in his ruling against LRC’s claim of legislative immunity.

“Judge Wingate again concluded in our view correctly that inappropriately touching someone’s posterior is not legislative protected activity,” Clay said in a phone interview with Pure Politics.

Leslie Vose, an attorney representing LRC in the lawsuit, did not return phone and email messages seeking comment.

Clay anticipates the agency will appeal Wingate’s ruling to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, saying Wingate “predicted they would appeal the last time we were in court, and I think his prediction’s going to come to fruition.”

That could delay Clay’s plans to request Wingate hold LRC in contempt and sanction the agency for ignoring the court’s order to provide detailed records in the discovery process. Clay said an appeal will likely hinder further action in Franklin Circuit Court as the higher court considers LRC’s arguments.

“I think they’re going to continue to ignore judge Wingate’s order compelling them to produce discovery for which they have not sought a stay,” he said. “They’re basically just defying his order, and they’re going to appeal this in an effort to further delay any resolution of the merits of the claims of these two plaintiffs.”

Wingate, in his order, urged the two sides to continue the discovery process after he declined to rule on whether LRC is liable as an employer in the matter. Clay, however, said he has not received “a single shred of paper” in discovery from LRC attorneys after submitting a renewed request after Wingate’s ruling in September.

“We filed discovery requests in December of 2013, and I expected LRC to do what the speaker of the House said it was going to do, and that is cooperate and provide responsive answers to the issues that are raised in this litigation and to do it in a timely manner,” Clay said. “I didn’t expect us to be wrangling over simple discovery requests a year after the fact with very little discovery responses produced.”

The legal quandary comes after Costner, an advisor to House Majority Whip Tommy Thompson, and Cooper, an aide to House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, accused Arnold, a former Sturgis Democrat, of sexual harassment in August 2013.

In May, the Legislative Ethics Commission found Arnold had violated ethics codes in complaints filed by Costner, Cooper and legislative secretary Gloria Morgan, ultimately fining Arnold $3,000 and reprimanding him. Steven Downey, Arnold’s attorney, has appealed the ethics panel’s decision in Franklin Circuit Court.

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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