Oct. 26 update: The civil lawsuit filed by Sarah Ryan against Medical Facilities of America, Inc., was dismissed in federal court on Sept. 29 because the parties chose to resolve the case via a “confidential settlement,” Ryan’s lawyer, Paul Todd Sartwell, said in an email.
The details of the settlement are not known to Southside Daily, but Sartwell added that “it was finalized by a confidential resolution with no admission of wrong doing.”
VIRGINIA BEACH — A Virginia Beach woman is suing a regional rehabilitation center after her supervisor allegedly sexually harassed and assaulted her for months, despite numerous formal complaints made against him, according to a court document.
In a complaint filed on Aug. 7 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Norfolk, Sarah Ryan alleges that her employer, Roanoke-based Medical Facilities of America, Inc. — or MFA — knew about the ongoing harassment and assault for seven months and failed to stop it.
MFA has 40 rehabilitation centers in Virginia and North Carolina. Six of those locations are in Hampton Roads, according to the company’s website.
Ryan has worked for MFA since 2012, according to the complaint. In 2015, she took the position of director of discharge and planning at the Princess Anne Health and Rehabilitation Center, 1948 Landstown Centre Way in Virginia Beach.
At that location, she began working under facility administrator Christopher Acorn.
Unwanted comments devolve into unwanted touch
Acorn began harassing Ryan as early as September 2016, the complaint says.
Ten years her senior and married, Acorn allegedly began blocking her path when she was on her way back to her office from the copy machine.
On other occasions, Acorn allegedly stroked Ryan’s hair, caressed her face and arms and approached her from behind when she was working at her desk, massaging her neck, shoulders and back.
The complaint also alleges that Acorn grabbed her by the waist and hand to bring her into his office. His unwanted advances allegedly included touching her bra, making comments about her appearance and telling her that her husband was “just a child,” with the insinuation that she could have a better man, like Acorn.
On some occasions, the complaint says, Acorn stood behind Ryan and draped his arms across the front of her chest so that they rested on her breasts.
Despite Ryan’s repeated pleas for Acorn to stop, the harassment grew worse, the complaint alleges.
Sexual harassment reports go unanswered
Ryan first reported Acorn’s behavior in September 2016 to the facilities’ human resources manager, Frank Hemphill. Hemphill forwarded the report to his supervisor, Bernadette Levy, who oversees the region’s human resources department.
Instead of taking action, Levy told Hemphill to “keep an eye” on Acorn and to “make sure he doesn’t get himself into trouble,” the complaint says.
Acorn’s alleged behavior didn’t change, and in December 2016, Ryan again reported him, this time to the company’s payroll specialist, Jill Sungy.
Sungy allegedly spoke with Hemphill about Ryan’s complaints, and the human resources manager promised to try and intervene. Although Hemphill allegedly spoke to Acorn several times before leaving the company in January, Acorn’s behavior didn’t change, according to the complaint.
In January 2017, Ryan’s assistant walked into her supervisor’s office to find Acorn twisting Ryan’s arm behind her back while Ryan said she was afraid he would break her bones, according to the complaint.
Another MFA employee, admissions director Judy Gallant, also allegedly spoke to Acorn about the harassment in January or February, but didn’t remove him from his position.
In February, Acorn and Ryan were chatting about their involvement in the company’s “Biggest Loser” weight competition.
During the conversation, Acorn allegedly questioned why Ryan was competing, grabbing her by the waist and running his hands up her sides to her bra. He insisted that she didn’t have any weight to lose, according to the complaint.
When another co-worker, Adam Ford, walked by, Acorn allegedly invited him to touch Ryan as well. Ford refused, the complaint says.
Several days later, Ryan complained about Acorn to the company’s director of nursing, Kathy Botelho. Although Botelho allegedly confirmed that she’d seen the harassment and other staff had reported it to her, she advised Ryan to “choose her battles carefully,” according to the complaint.
Ryan’s impression was that Botelho believed Acorn was just flirting with her, the complaint says.
The “Biggest Loser” incident made Ryan feel “powerless and ashamed because the more she said no and pleaded for help from MFA, the more it seemed to embolden” Acorn, according to the complaint.
Investigation comes a month before lawsuit is filed
By March 2017, Acorn’s unwanted physical advances were happening to Ryan almost every day, the complaint says. Ryan continued to protest Acorn’s alleged behavior, but he wouldn’t stop.
That same month, a new human resources manager, Dana Cole, began working at the facility. Although she walked in on Acorn touching Ryan in her office, Cole failed to intervene, according to the complaint.
Ryan asked for help again on April 12, this time from her former supervisor, Rachel Davis. Davis advised Ryan to confront Acorn head on and tell him that she was uncomfortable with his behavior.
About seven months after Ryan first reported Acorn’s harassment and assault, MFA confirmed the company would investigate the allegations.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission approved Ryan’s case to be filed as a lawsuit against the company on May 11, Sartwell said.
The complaint asks for monetary damages because of MFA’s “callous response” to Ryan’s “many requests for help” in connection with the alleged harassment and assault, which allegedly happened on company property during work hours.
Ryan’s alleged losses are both financial and emotional, in the form of wages, promotions, medical bills, anxiety, fear and “grave humiliation and embarrassment,” according to the complaint.
The complaint also asks for MFA to create and implement policies and programs to train employees on sexual harassment and Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act. Those measures prohibit employers from discriminating against employees for a variety of reasons, including their sex.
“I feel she has a strong case,” said Ryan’s lawyer, Todd Sartwell. “A lot of times these cases are hard to prove, but this is one of those cases that at the early stage has the witnesses and the backing to make the company liable.”
Ryan is still working for MFA and declined, through Sartwell, to comment on the case.
MFA representatives also declined to comment on the litigation.
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