Bethlehem Town Hall. Spotlight file photo
BETHLEHEM — In late April, a US Magistrate Judge dismissed a lawsuit brought against the Town of Bethlehem by a former Bethlehem police officer who claimed that she was subjected to sexual harassment and intimidation by a fellow officer she briefly dated.
US Magistrate Judge Daniel J. Stewart found that plaintiff Caitlin Dole “failed to establish that she was subjected to a hostile work environment,” citing a lack of evidence that Officer Craig Sleurs’ behavior was due to her gender rather than the end of their personal relationship and concluding that evidence of Sleurs’ communications produced by Dole were found to be, “at most offensive and not threatening or humiliating” and “did not alter the conditions” of Dole’s employment. The finding also noted that Sleurs behavior, which it acknowledged as “inappropriate and annoying,” occured while both employees were on leave and therefore was not the responsibility of the department or the town.
Dole was hired by the police department in January 2014. In December of the same year, she began dating Sleurs, who was also assigned to the department’s Patrol Division although the two worked different shifts.
In March 2015, Sleurs went on a three-month ‘sick leave’ and Dole ended the relationship. About a month later, Dole also took sick leave due to a foot injury sustained outside of work. She never returned to the force.
WAccording to the finding, while both officers were on leave, Sleurs began contacting Dole via phone, text and social media, leaving messages laced with profanity that were often contradictory, vacillating between asking for forgiveness and telling Dole that she “disgust[s]” him. When Dole blocked him on various devices, he used his son’s phone to contact her at least once and began contacting hered at least two of her friends oniends Facebook.
In mid-April, Dole’s father, unbeknownst to her, met with Lieutenant Thomas Heffernan and Detective-Sergeant Adam Hornick and advised them that Sleurs had been harassing his daughter with unwelcome text messages and phone calls. On May 1, she met with them and presented evidence of his unwanted communications. During initial meetings, Heffernan claimed that Dole had not wanted to “make a big deal” and said she would prefer to keep the matter quiet. Dole and her mother, who was at the May 1 meeting, claimed otherwise and said that it was Hornick and Heffernan who wanted to keep the issue “in-house.”
The department met with Sleurs and ordered him to cease all communication with Dole and claimed that she was satisfied and didn’t desire any further action. Dole claimed that she asked if any further disciplinary action would be taken against Officer Sleurs because she “was not comfortable in the same work environment,” and that Heffernan said he would look into it.
Following the meeting with Sleurs, Dole maintained that she still felt uncomfortable, citing his Facebook activity and the fact that her parents claimed they had seen his volunteer fire truck driving near her home.
On May 14, Dole informed the department of her resignation. Both parties differ, however, about her stated reasons for doing so. Heffernan claimed that Dole said she preferred to return to her old job and, while she was still not comfortable around Sleurs, told him there was no other action she desired from the department. Dole stated that she left due to fear for her safety and the department’s “lack of response.”
Dole filed her lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and a hostile work environment against the town on February 16, 2016.
According to the finding: “In order to establish a hostile work environment claim, a plaintiff must show ‘ that the harassment was ‘sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment,’ and  that a specific basis exists for imputing the objectionable conduct to the employer.’ Furthermore, ‘[i]t is axiomatic that mistreatment at work . . . is actionable under Title VII only when it occurs because of an employee’s sex, or other protected characteristic.’”
The Town of Bethlehem argued that those conditions were not met because Sleurs communications were “insufficiently severe or pervasive,” “incidental to a consensual relationship and not motivated by discriminatory animus,” and “wholly related to off-duty conduct.”
Dole unsuccessfully argued against dismissal, saying she needed more time for discovery to depose witnesses who would paint Sleurs as a man who has a tendency to harass women and the department as appropriately responsive to that behavior.
Bethlehem Town Attorney James Potter declined comment other than to say that the town was pleased with the outcome and Dole’s lawyer could not be reached for comment.