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Lawsuit Alleges Sex Discrimination Against Former Easterseals West Kentucky Employee

Easterseals West Kentucky

Update: The lawsuit was dismissed due to a settlement being reached, according to a federal court order filed on Nov. 9, 2021. Details of the settlement were not disclosed in the order.

A federal civil lawsuit filed last month alleges a former female employee of a Paducah-based nonprofit providing disability services faced sex discrimination during her employment, in the form of persistent and critical comments about her body. The lawsuit also alleges Easterseals West Kentucky terminated the former employee in violation of the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act.

The lawsuit states Kara Petterson, who began work at the nonprofit in January of 2019 as direct support working with adults with physical and intellectual disabilities, was brought in multiple times to her supervisor’s office, with her supervisor stating her body was making others “uncomfortable” even though she was following the dress code. 


The lawsuit alleges when she told her supervisor, the nonprofit’s vice president, and its CEO Danny Carroll that the persistent comments about her body made her uncomfortable, those at Easterseals West Kentucky, instead of remedying the situation, “punished” her by forcing her to change her pink hair color. This was despite, the lawsuit states, another employee coloring her hair an unnatural color without consequence. 


“When she colored her hair, a color that had been OK a year earlier, after she had begun complaining about these things, all of a sudden that wasn’t OK and she had to change her hair,” said Wes Sullenger, the Paducah-based attorney representing Petterson. “But people showed up on these Zoom calls during the [COVID-19] shutdown with completely purple hair, which is in violation of their policies.”


The lawsuit also states in March of 2020, Easterseals West Kentucky’s Human Resources staff informed Petterson that a male employee from a different department filed a sexual harassment complaint against her because he “claimed to be excited by looking at Ms. Petterson’s body,” even though Petterson did not interact with anyone from other departments or share breaks with anyone from other departments. 


The human resources staff allegedly told Petterson her clothing was “sexually attractive” and ordered managers to evaluate her clothing daily “which led to managers blatantly looking at Ms. Petterson’s body on a daily basis.” This is despite Petterson’s clothing fully covering her body, according to the lawsuit. 


“She was a persistent topic of conversation. She complied with the dress code as far as she was told, but would get comments like we’ve alleged in the lawsuit that even though she was complying with the dress code, her body was just enticing to some folk,” Sullenger said. 


The lawsuit also alleges the nonprofit required employees to come into the office without proper COVID-19 protocols in place, which led to Petterson submitting a two-week notice. Petterson subsequently began quarantining after learning of a potential COVID-19 exposure. Easterseals West Kentucky, the lawsuit states, then terminated her and refused to pay her for those two weeks.


The lawsuit claims the sex discrimination and retailaition Petterson faced based on her sex and her female appearance violated her civil rights, and she sustained “a loss of back pay, benefits, incidental expenses, and front pay.” The lawsuit also claims the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act was violated in refusing to pay Petterson while she was quarantining due to potential COVID-19 exposure. The lawsuit seeks damages for front pay, lost compensation, punitive damages and compensatory damages for “emotional distress, pain and suffering, embarrassment, and humiliation.”


CEO Danny Carroll said in an email he was not at liberty to comment on a personnel issue and deferred to an attorney representing the nonprofit, Jason Coltharp. Coltharp did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A staff member at the McCracken County Circuit Clerk’s office said no pending lawsuits regarding sex discrimination had been filed in circuit court. A review of federal court records found no other lawsuits filed against Easterseals West Kentucky.


Sullenger said his client doesn’t want this lawsuit to detract from the nonprofit’s work, but added there should be accountability regarding the workplace environment. 


“We don’t doubt they’re doing good things. Kara loves the work and wishes she was still working with her clients there. But ultimately, they’re also an employer who has obligations to their employees to provide a safe and healthy work environment. And that’s where we think the failing happened,” Sullenger said. 


This story may be updated.


"Liam Niemeyer is a reporter for the Ohio Valley Resource covering agriculture and infrastructure in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia and also serves Assistant News Director at WKMS. He has reported for public radio stations across the country from Appalachia to Alaska, most recently as a reporter for WOUB Public Media in Athens, Ohio. He is a recent alumnus of Ohio University and enjoys playing tenor saxophone in various jazz groups."
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