Chester County sheriff sued for sexual harassment

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Travis Jenkins/Landmark News Services

CHESTER – Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood has been named the defendant in a sexual harassment lawsuit by a former county employee.

The suit was filed at 8:50 a.m. Friday, Aug. 1, in Chester County Clerk of Court’s Office. 

Mary Anne Tolbert, who was hired by former Sheriff Richard Smith and continued to work when Underwood’s tenure began last January, is the plaintiff. 

Underwood is named individually and in his official capacity of sheriff. 

Tolbert does not claim to have been raped or physically forced into performing sexual acts, but said she was coerced into sex and feared that her job was dependent on having sex with Underwood.

The suit sets up Tolbert’s credentials, noting that she has 16 years of work in law enforcement with “an exemplary record.” 

Smith hired Tolbert in March 2010 as lieutenant of Chester County Animal Control. In 2011, she was promoted to captain over the jail. She eventually was put back in charge of animal control in addition to her jail duties.

Tolbert claims she and Underwood had a consensual relationship in 2005 or 2006. At that point, Tolbert worked in investigations for the Fairfield County Sheriff’s Office and Underwood worked for the S.C. Law Enforcement Division (SLED). The two were often assigned to the same cases and a friendship was formed. 

Tolbert claims the two had similar interests and occasionally hunted or rode horses together. The suit alleges that “over time, their relationship went from a friendship to a physical relationship.” This went on “off-and-on” for about a year, but faded, Tolbert says in the lawsuit, because Underwood became “controlling.” She claimed to not have contact with him until just before his 2012 election victory.

Just before Underwood took office, Tolbert said he approached her in the sheriff’s office parking lot and asked if she wanted to return to investigations and questioned her about “what side she was on.” Tolbert said she interpreted Underwood’s question as to whether or not she supported him.

Tolbert said she was hesitant to return to investigations because she took sleep medication that required her to have eight hours of constant rest daily Tolbert said in the lawsuit she didn’t want to be responsible for driving to crime scenes at night while under the influence of sleep medicine.

Once Underwood took office, Tolbert said he essentially began terminating Chester Sheriff’s Office employees who were not his supporters.

“This created a very tense environment for all employees and many feared losing their jobs, including Plaintiff,” the suit alleges.

Tolbert said  that  shortly after, she was told to start supervising the investigations unit as the captain, along with Capt. Burley McDaniel. She was also put in charge of evidence, victim’s services and was made responsible for paying the sheriff's office’s bills. She was put in charge of narcotics as well, which Tolbert said “created a lot of stress.” She claims in the lawsuit that her subordinates in narcotics “refused to listen to any of her directives because she is a woman,” which made her job “sometimes overwhelming.”

In February 2013, a month after Underwood took office, Tolbert alleges that he began to “sexually harass” her. 

The suit claims that Underwood would frequently contrive reasons for the two of them to be together in his office most of the day.

“The number of times Defendant said and did inappropriate things during this time period are too many to list as they were virtually constant,” the suit alleges, though placing her hand on his crotch and telling her he wanted her is one thing mentioned specifically. Tolbert said she “expressed her displeasure" and made it clear that she “did not consent to his advances.” She said she also cautioned Underwood about upsetting his wife and getting in trouble with her.

Tolbert said she was frequently “required” to ride with Underwood in a county vehicle on official business. Once the business was tended to, though, she said she was driven to places that had nothing to do with work. During one of those trips, Tolbert says Underwood said he had been warned against employing her because she was terminated by the town of Winnsboro because “she had reported police corruption and was thereafter retaliated against.” He allegedly said he knew of rumors that she was “blackballed” in area law enforcement circles.

“He used this knowledge to manipulate Plaintiff to think that working for him was the only choice she had,” the suit alleges.

On one occasion, Tolbert said Underwood took her to a hunt club located off S.C. Highway 9 Bypass. She said she believed his intention was simply to show her the property as both are avid hunters. When they arrived, though, she said she was told to get out of the vehicle.

“He told Plaintiff to take her pants down and then he had sex with her.” Tolbert said she made it clear she did not want to do so and that he “should not be doing this.” 

She claims she felt “horrible, degraded and powerless to refuse” because she feared for losing her job and did not want to upset Underwood, so she obliged, but “shut her eyes and pretend(ed) it was not happening.”

Tolbert alleges in the lawsuit that on two occasions, Underwood took her to the home of a woman he claimed was his friend. She said Underwood had a key to the residence. The woman was not in the house on either occasion. Despite claiming to try to stay in the car, Tolbert relented in going inside with him upon his insistence. On both occasions, she said she was coerced into having sex in the living room of the home and again closed her eyes and pretended “it was not happening.” 

Tolbert charges that the woman who lived in the home was later “preselected” by Underwood for employment within the sheriff’s office.

Tolbert says on two other occasions she was taken to the home of a law enforcement officer in another agency. She claims Underwood had a key to that home, too, and that he coerced her into sex there as well. 

Other alleged trysts took place at Underwood’s home (despite Tolbert’s alleged fears of being caught by Underwood’s wife) and on a “property called Summer Breeze” (outside of the car).

Tolbert said she was “in an extremely emotionally fragile state” because of the alleged sexual coercion, the fear of being fired and the additional duties she was given. She claims in October 2013 that she started having panic attacks “which felt like heart attacks” including in Underwood’s office. She had to be written out of work for two weeks of medical leave. When she came back to work, she said she was given the additional duty of overseeing E-911, despite her leave for anxiety.

Tolbert said she began refusing to ride with Underwood and made it clear to him she would no longer have sex with him. She claims the sheriff’s “actions and attitude” toward her completely changed and that he began a pattern of retaliation. She said he began “severely criticizing” her work in front of subordinates to such a degree they began asking her confidentially why he was treating her that way. 

Additionally, she claims there was a blank disciplinary slip with her name on it sitting on Underwood’s desk “in view of all who came near for months.” She also says she was passed over for a promotion to chief deputy, which she claims was promised to her. She claims to have been more qualified than the man who got the job, Robert Sprouse. She was promoted from captain to major of the investigations unit and other units she was assigned to. 

In February 2014, Tolbert said she was on vacation when she was told Underwood wanted a meeting with her when she returned. When she came back, she said the meeting was nixed and she was instead berated by Underwood at a staff meeting. She said her work-related texts and emails to Underwood stopped being returned “making it impossible to perform the tasks to which she was assigned.” 

She alleges she was frequently belittled by the sheriff and only addressed in nasty, hateful tones. This included an alleged verbal barrage for referring to Smith as “Sheriff Smith” on Facebook. She claims Underwood told her only he should be called sheriff and that if she could not decide “what side of the fence she was on then she could find another job.” She also claimed to have been written up for having brought her son to the animal shelter every day for two years. She said he volunteered a few hours a day at the shelter.

On April 7, Tolbert reported Underwood’s actions to the Chester County human resources department. On April 10, she was placed on medical leave for “severe stress and anxiety.” She claims to have continued having panic attacks and having been prescribed several medications for them. 

She claims to have been rendered unable to return to work. Tolbert claims to have suffered “pain and suffering, emotional distress, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, damages to her relationship with her son, impairment to her mind and medical bills and costs.” She claims to be entitled to “actual and punitive damages” by Underwood but a specific monetary sum is not mentioned in the filing, rather the “Plaintiff prays for judgment against Defendant for actual and punitive damages in amounts determined by this court and/or the jury and for the costs of this action.”

The filing also says Tolbert will file a charge of discrimination jointly with the S.C. Human Affairs Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for sexual harassment and retaliation.

Underwood did provide a brief response to the allegations.

“The allegations are completely false and I look forward to vigorously defending them through trial if necessary,” Underwood said via email to the (Chester) News & Reporter.

Underwood said he “would love to” comment further but had been advised against doing so by legal counsel. 

He referred any further questions to James M. Davis Jr. with Davidson & Lindemann, P.A.