State insurance employee files lawsuit alleging racism, sexism

DOVER — An employee of the Delaware Department of Insurance on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against Insurance Commissioner Trinidad Navarro and others alleging racial and sexual harassment that got worse after she reported it.

Fleur McKendell, who joined the department in January 2016, names in the suit the Department of Insurance and the Office of Management and Budget in general, as well as Mr. Navarro and several current or former state employees.

She is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, plus an injunction requiring the department to grant her accommodations for a medical condition and an order to mandate anti-harassment training and study race and gender bias and the process for filing complaints within the agency.

A director of life and health consumer services, Ms. McKendell is the only black employee within the agency holding such a position.

About 30 people, including civil rights leaders and reporters, attended Wednesday’s announcement of the litigation, which Ms. McKendell’s attorneys said represents “a line in the sand.”

“From January 2017 to the present, Ms. McKendell has been subjected to escalating discrimination and retaliation based on her race, sex, disability, request for accommodation and complaints both in administrative charges and the press, regarding unequal treatment,” the suit alleges.

“This treatment has fundamentally altered the terms and conditions of her employment, created a hostile work environment, has interfered with her opportunities for growth and advancement, has undermined her with her subordinates, has created and exacerbated a painful psychological condition, and has resulted in extreme emotional distress to Ms. McKendell.”

By filing this lawsuit, Ms. McKendell hopes to prevent similar treatment from happening to others and to encourage those who have been discriminated against to come forward, her attorneys said.

“We regret that we had to file this complaint because what Ms. McKendell is really saying, Delaware, is we’re better than this. We are better than this,” Ben Crump, a nationally recognized civil rights lawyer, said.

Several people specifically named in the suit have denied the claims.

Complaint
According to the filing, the issues Ms. McKendell says she suffered started one year after she joined the department. Mr. Navarro took over in January 2017 after defeating Insurance Commissioner Karen Weldin Stewart in a primary a few months earlier, and while the lawsuit says Ms. McKendell was an exemplary employee who liked her job, the conditions soon changed.

The lawsuit alleges Deputy Insurance Commissioner Mitch Crane, who is specifically named as a defendant, sought to force Ms. McKendell out because of her race.

Per the suit, Mr. Navarro touched Ms. McKendell’s hair without her permission and made remarks about her height and her high heels that made her uncomfortable, while Mr. Crane “made numerous other comments about Ms. McKendell’s clothing and shoes of a type that he did not direct to other non-African-American employees.”

A few weeks after Mr. Navarro’s tenure began, an anonymous letter criticizing Mr. Crane was left in the commissioner’s office. Mr. Crane, according to the lawsuit, believed Ms. McKendell had written it because it contained a phrase — “off the chain” — that supposedly referred to slavery.

While several people were viewed as suspects, Ms. McKendell was the only one closely scrutinized, with someone searching her office for handwriting samples, the lawsuit says.

Mr. Navarro and his chief of staff, Stuart Snyder, who is also specifically named in the suit, allegedly conducted a meeting that had the feel of an “interrogation” without human resources staff present.

The next day, the lawsuit states, Ms. McKendell told Mr. Snyder she felt targeted and had to leave early that day due to nausea, a headache and anxiety.

She was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder “induced by Defendants’ treatment of her after she filed formal complaints of harassment and discrimination.”

On Jan. 30, 2017, Ms. McKendell filed a complaint with the Department of Human Resources. She made a formal allegation to the Department of Labor about two months later.

At that point, rather than ceasing, the harassment only intensified, she alleges.

The lawsuit says Ms. McKendell was excluded from meetings and had restrictions placed on her work travel. Additionally, Mr. Crane allegedly “began a campaign of harassment, in which he canvassed Ms. McKendell’s subordinates, seeking negative feedback” about her.

Mr. Crane, the lawsuit says, asked other employees with the agency to blind-copy him on emails to Ms. McKendell, while he, Mr. Navarro and Mr. Snyder “also engaged in concerted, improper and unlawful efforts to access documents containing Ms. McKendell’s personally protected health information” against state policy and federal law.

At an August hearing, presiding official Paul Muller allegedly “pressured Ms. McKendell to make and consider settlement offers, even though she repeatedly objected that her attorney was not present.” Every suggestion from Mr. Muller would have had her leave the department, according to the lawsuit.

“Ms. McKendell stated many times during the conference that she did not want paid leave, because she wants to work, and that she did not want to leave the DOI, because she loves the work that she does, but none of the proposed resolutions would have allowed Ms. McKendell to remain with the DOI for more than one year, and none of the proposed resolutions addressed in any manner the misconduct alleged or made any effort to remediate same,” it says.

Also in August of that year, Ms. McKendell sought and was given permission to work from home four days a week due to her condition.

Thirteen months later, she had progressed to working from home three days a week and being in the office on the other occasions when she conducted interviews with several news outlets about her experience, the lawsuit says. About a week after those interviews, her accommodation was revoked and she was told she would need to undergo a medical examination with a particular provider she did not trust, in violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the suit.

The department insisted she receive the examination or be present in the office every day, despite the fact such a checkup had not been needed before, the lawsuit alleges.

“Against the orders of her doctor, but as required by the DOI, Ms. McKendell began to report to work full-time, exacerbating her condition,” the litigation says. “Defendants’ abrupt cancellation of her accommodation caused, and continues to cause, extreme emotional distress to Ms. McKendell, and has undone the progress she had made over the course of the preceding year, which had allowed her to work her way back to two days per week in the office, and other meetings as needed.

“Ms. McKendell has requested multiple times, with provider documentation, to have her accommodation reinstated, so that she can begin again to progress toward maintaining a schedule which is full time in the office.”

According to Ms. McKendell, all of this was an attempt to force her to leave her post.

Response

In a statement, Mr. Navarro pushed back against the allegations.

“The Department of Insurance has not yet been provided a copy of or access to the complaint that has allegedly been filed in Federal Court in Delaware against various agencies and individuals in State government, including the Department,” he said. “We only know what has been described in today’s press conference.”

“As this matter concerns personnel issues relating to a Department employee, I cannot comment on the allegations of the complaint. I can say with certainty, however, that the Department respects and values all of our employees.

“As the Insurance Commissioner and the leader of this Department, I do not and will not tolerate harassment, discrimination, or retaliation of any kind against any Department employee. The dedicated and talented staff of the Department of Insurance remain committed to their important work overseeing the insurance industry and protecting Delawareans.”

Mr. Crane, who the lawsuit notes “separated” from the department in February 2018, strongly denied Ms. McKendell’s claims, saying he is offended by the allegations of racism and sexism.

“Any and all accusations (against me) are inaccurate or untrue,” he said when contacted Wednesday.

Mr. Crane, who unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic nomination for insurance commissioner in 2012, speculated others in the agency “fed” Ms. McKendell untruths, fueling her sense of being treated differently.

While his departure was not totally his choice, he planned to retire in 2018 anyway, Mr. Crane said.

A spokesman for OMB said the department cannot comment because it has not yet reviewed the filing.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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