By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily
A jury should be allowed to hear allegations by a Wyoming Highway Patrol officer that she faced a hostile work environment because of her sex, a federal court has ruled.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver on Wednesday ordered a jury trial in the lawsuit filed by Delsa Brooke Sanderson, agreeing there are issues of fact that should be settled by a jury.
“A reasonable jury could find that Sanderson has raised genuine issues of material facts as to the severity and pervasiveness … of her hostile work environment claim,” the ruling said.
The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed against the Wyoming Highway Patrol by Sanderson, the patrol’s first female K9 handler.
According to the ruling, Sanderson joined the Highway Patrol in 2007 and received many positive reviews in her first seven years of service.
In 2015, she was named to the patrol’s “Divison O,” a special division that provides protective services for the governor and legislators.
Upon joining the team, Sanderson said rumors circulated that she had obtained the position because she was having an affair with someone in a leadership position at the Highway Patrol.
She was also reprimanded for being too “familiar” with the deputy chief of staff to the governor and accused of flirting with a local law enforcement officer during a visit by the governor to the National High School Rodeo.
In addition, Sanderson felt ostracized by her colleagues, the ruling said, because she was ignored by fellow officers and was excluded from activities.
The ruling said in evidence submitted during the U.S. District Court hearing, some troopers expressed the view that “Division O as a whole does not accept females.”
She was demoted to her prior position in 2016 after a dispute with a dog trainer during a training exercise.
The U.S. District Court in Cheyenne granted the Highway Patrol’s request to issue a summary judgment against Sanderson, finding that her evidence of harassment did not show that harassment was severe or pervasive enough to constitute a hostile work environment.
But the appeals court said Sanderson’s evidence of acts that occurred before she joined Division O actually raised questions about continuing sexual harassment that should be decided by a jury.
Those acts included rumors that she had sex with many of her colleagues and that she used flirting and sex to gain advantages such as a new patrol car.
“…(A) jury could find that other hostile acts, which were not explicitly sexual in nature, were nevertheless part of the sexual harassment against Sanderson and contributed to a sexually hostile work environment,” the ruling said.
In addition, the ruling said, Sanderson’s evidence raised questions about how many people within the Highway Patrol took part in the harassment.
The court sided with the District Court in its decision to grant a summary judgment in favor of the Highway Patrol in Sanderson’s argument that she was demoted in retaliation for her actions. The appeals court found that Sanderson should first exhaust administrative avenues open to her in that allegation before proceeding to court action on the complaint.
Part of Sanderson’s lawsuit has already been heard by a jury, an allegation of sexual discrimination. A jury in 2019 found in favor of the Highway Patrol.