A former jail employee has sued Salt Lake County in federal court, claiming she was subjected to sexual harassment, gender discrimination and acts of retaliation from supervisors and staff over a period of 14 years.
The affronts upon Sherie Peek — including sexually suggestive emails and an invitation to a group sex party with two jail nurses — were inadequately investigated and ultimately covered up by a corrupt system inside the jail and sheriff’s office administration, court papers say.
Filed Friday in Salt Lake City’s U.S. District Court, the lawsuit contends Peek was forced to endure a hostile work environment in violation of her civil rights, along with violations of her First and 14th Amendment rights to free expression and equal protection.
And the county’s conduct following Peek’s repeated complaints “represents a pattern of activity wherein employees are repeatedly abused, disregarded, not respected, not respected and not heard,” the lawsuit states.
Salt Lake County is the only defendant named in the lawsuit, although the filing also cites the names and behaviors of numerous jail and sheriff’s office staff, whom Peek claims failed to adequately protect her.
Included in that list are Peek’s direct supervisor Mark Ellsworth; former Capt. Rollin Cook, who is now head of the Utah Department of Corrections; and former Sheriff Jim Winder, who is now the Moab City police chief.
Also named are two jail nursing directors, human resources officers, several nurses and a union officer.
Peek continues to work for Salt Lake County, although last year she was transferred — demoted, her attorney says — out of her job at the jail to the main sheriff’s office records department.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction against the county to stop what Peek contends is ongoing harassment. It also seeks a jury trial and punitive damages for Peek’s suffering.
Salt Lake County spokesman Michelle Schmitt said the county cannot comment on pending litigation.
Cook’s spokesperson said they would defer to Salt Lake County, since he is no longer employed by the county.
A public information officer the county jail did not reply. No telephone number for Ellsworth, who retired from the county jail in 2015, could be found by The Salt Lake Tribune.
Winder was not aware of the lawsuit but was familiar with Peek’s complaint. He said only that the issues are “transmitted across multiple administrative offices”
Peek was hired by the sheriff’s office to work as a clerk handing inmate medical records in 1999, according to her attorney, Nathan Drage.
Four years later, Ellsworth began to write her emails that included romantic language and sexual innuendo, court papers say.
Excerpts from the emails included in the complaint include descriptions of dreams Ellsworth had in which he kisses Peek and tells her he is hoping to be “dining on a cute blonde.” The emails also include remarks about Peek’s physical characteristics and body, and talk about oral sex.
“There is no law in Salt Lake County, Utah, or the United States that condones such comments,” the lawsuit states. “It is wrong, it is actionable and it should result in severe consequences to the manager, and protection and help for the employee.”
The 89-page lawsuit contends Peek made multiple complaints about Ellsworth’s behavior and remarks, but that each time human resource officers or supervisors either ignored her or conducted superficial investigations that resulted in findings that the complaints were unfounded.
Ellsworth told one manager that he had a consensual relationship with Peek, which the lawsuit contends is untrue.
The lawsuit contends the atmosphere at the jail and the sheriff’s office was “sexually saturated” and that it was common for employees to be sexually involved.
In addition, the lawsuit states that rumors about Peek’s complaints invited harassment from other staff, including from two jail nurses.
Peek contends the women called her at home on a night in 2005 and invited her to join them for group sex. Peek refused, the lawsuit states, and filed a complaint, but got no support from a nursing supervisor.
Peek also says the two nurses gained access to her work email and read Ellsworth’s message to her. They then used that information to bring their own sexual harassment complaint against Peek, who was later cleared.
Letters of support for Peek filed by other employees who witnessed the treatment she received were also largely ignored, the lawsuit claims.
After years of trying to rely on established anti-discrimination and harassment policies and complaint procedures within the jail and sheriff’s office administrations, Peek sought legal advice.
Drage said he spent three years sending demand letters to the county seeking relief for Peek, but got only one response. That was a letter from the civil division of the Salt Lake County district attorney’s office which said the allegations had been reviewed and essentially dismissed, Drage said Friday.
Peek filed a complaint against the county with the Utah Labor Commission in 2015. The commission tossed it out, claiming the allegations were too old.
The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, however, issued Peek a right to sue letter in July, making way for Friday’s filing.