GALVESTON, Texas (CN) - Brazoria County may be liable for subjecting employees to sexual harassment from a judge with an alleged history of randy behavior, a federal judge ruled.
Diana Coates and Margo Green said they led the tide against Brazoria County Judge James Blackstock with claims that he fondled their breasts and sent them pornographic text messages and emails.
Their claims allegedly led to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation that found several women with similar stories. Coates and Green said the commission faulted county supervisors and judges for failing to prevent Blackstock's sexual harassment in the workplace.
The commission also recommended reporting those Juvenile Board judges who "knew of the sexual harassment and did nothing," according to the complaint.
Despite this apparent vindication, Coates and Green said the county probation department initially retaliated against them and that they lost their jobs.
Blackstock meanwhile resigned from Brazoria County Court after prosecutors filed criminal charges against him in 2008. He quickly pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and paid a fine.
Coates and Green filed a federal complaint against Blackstock, the county and the Juvenile Board two years ago in Galveston.
Brazoria has countered the claims by saying that it fired Coates and Green because they were interfering with another woman's sexual harassment charges against Blackstock.
The Southern District of Texas previously nixed the claims against the board, but it refused Tuesday to let Brazoria off the hook.
To find the county liable for sexual harassment and retaliation, the plaintiffs would need to show that the Juvenile Board or District Attorney acted as a final policymaker responsible for the harmful activity at issue.
"The county argues that the only relevant policymaker is the Commissioners Court, because only it has the authority to set county policy with respect to personnel policies dealing with sexual harassment and retaliation," U.S. District Judge Gregg Costa wrote. "Moreover, it argues that the Juvenile Board is a separate and distinct governmental entity from the county. For the reasons discussed below, the court disagrees with the county's premise as it relates to the Juvenile Board because Texas law delegates to the board final policymaking authority for juvenile probation department personnel policies."
Costa did dismiss the claims against the county pertaining to the alleged inaction of Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne.
"Because plaintiffs' claims regarding District Attorney Yenne pertain to her prosecutorial rather than administrative duties, the court concludes that she was not acting as a final policymaker for the County under section 1983 law," Costa wrote. "The claims against the county based on a failure to prosecute Blackstock earlier are therefore dismissed."
While this case is still pending, a later complaint against county and Blackstock already went to trial. Brazoria County reached a settlement with the three plaintiffs in that case, and a jury returned a unanimous verdict against Blackstock on July 15, 2011.
The jury awarded $50,000 each in compensatory damages to two of the women, and $100,000 in compensatory damages to Strawn. They also awarded each woman $1 million in punitive damages.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt reduced the punitive damages to match the pecuniary damage awards in September.
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