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Feds cite “hostile work environment” in civil action initiated by transgender woman

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USDOJ calls for corrective actions as well as a monetary settlement

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — The U.S Justice Department (USDOJ) has cited “hostile work environment” allegations against ASG, through the local Department of Human and Social Service, for alleged discriminatory action by the late DHSS director, Meki Solomona towards employee, Simeonica Tuiteleleapaga.

As previously reported by Samoa News, the USDOJ civil suit was filed May 11 at the federal court in Honolulu against ASG’s DHSS for “discriminating against an employee on the basis of her sex by maintaining a work environment hostile to her because she is a transgender woman.”

And even though the civil case is just now being filed and made public on federal court records, Gov. Lemanu P. S. Mauga has submitted for Fono approval, a proposed appropriation bill, which includes funds for the USDOJ litigation as the case is moving forward to a settlement through a proposed consent decree.

The 19-page civil suit was the result of a discrimination complaint filed by Simeonica Tuiteleleapaga — who worked for the DHSS from 1995 until 2022 — in January 2017 with the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). (See Samoa News edition May 16 for details on complaint.)

In the suit, USDOJ alleged that “ASG Failed to correct Solomona’s harassment” of Tuiteleleapaga, arguing that — at all times relevant to this complaint — ASG did not have an effective EEO policy or procedure to deal with employee complaints of sexual discrimination or harassment, including those based on gender identity.

It alleges that multiple DHSS supervisors, including then deputy director John Suisala, were aware of Solomona’s attempts to assign Tuiteleleapaga and another female transgender employee to Adopt-A-School program duties otherwise performed exclusively by men.

Furthermore, multiple supervisors, including Suisala, were aware of Solomona’s conduct toward Tuiteleleapaga during the November 10, 2016 meeting, including his comments directed at her transgender status.

Additionally, multiple supervisors, including Suisala, received Solomona’s email misgendering Tuiteleleapaga and directing her transfer to another work location.

“None of Tuiteleleapaga’s supervisors received training from ASG on how to handle sex discrimination or harassment,” the lawsuit alleges. “None of Tuiteleleapaga’s supervisors understood how to report Solomona’s misconduct.”

(Samoa News notes that Suisala is the current DHSS director.)

USDOJ further claimed that:

•           ASG failed to train its supervisors on how to effectively handle employees’ complaints of discrimination based on sex, including a hostile work environment.

•           ASG failed to train its employees on how to effectively handle situations where they have been subjected to discrimination based on their sex, including a hostile work environment.

•           ASG failed to take corrective action after any incident of harassment that effectively prevented future harassment by Solomona.

And even after the November 10, 2016 staff meeting — where Solomona publicly harassed Tuiteleleapaga because of her gender identity — Solomona’s harassment of Tuiteleleapaga, such as his denial of work travel authorizations, continued unabated, according to USDOJ.

“Even after Solomona’s misconduct and harassment of Tuiteleleapaga was widely reported upon by the local press,” then Gov. Lolo M. Moliga “reappointed” Solomona as DHSS director and the appointment was later confirmed by the Fono.

“As a direct and proximate result of ASG’s hostile work environment because of her sex, Tuiteleleapaga suffered damages including, but not limited to, emotional distress and loss of enjoyment of life,” the lawsuit alleges.

USDOJ then alleged in the lawsuit a “hostile work environment” arguing that ASG, through the DHSS, discriminated against Tuiteleleapaga by allowing the misconduct of Solomona to create and maintain a work environment hostile to Tuiteleleapaga because she is a transgender woman.

According to the suit, the ASG violated - Section 703(a) of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e- 2(a) of federal law — by subjecting Tuiteleleapaga to a hostile work environment based on her sex, including her gender identity.

USDOJ points out that Solomona was Tuiteleleapaga’s supervisor for purposes of analyzing the ASG’s liability for his harassment, but ASG failed to exercise reasonable care to prevent or promptly correct Solomona’s harassment of Tuiteleleapaga.

“Tuiteleleapaga did not unreasonably fail to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by ASG to address Solomona’s harassment or to avoid harm otherwise,” it says.

For relief, USDOJ has requested — among other things — awarding all appropriate monetary relief, including any lost back pay or lost benefits, to Tuiteleleapaga in an amount to be determined at trial to make her whole for all losses she suffered as a result of the discriminatory conduct as alleged in this complaint.

“Enjoin ASG from further discriminating and retaliating against Tuiteleleapaga,” the lawsuit said, noting that Tuiteleleapaga worked at DHSS from 1995 to 2022.

The court is asked to order ASG to take remedial steps to ensure a non-discriminatory workplace for all DHSS employees, including implementation of appropriate anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation policies, and providing adequate training to all employees and officials regarding the handling of discrimination and retaliation complaints.

The Lemanu Administration is seeking $100,000 under the proposed bill sent to the Fono for approval to address the pending consent decree. Lawmakers will take up the bill, when the Fono convenes in July.