Franklin County and its top building official have settled a former employee’s sexual harassment lawsuit days before a jury trial that could have revealed a prior allegation against the official.
Former building inspector Jennifer Owen accused Robert Andrew “Andy” Morris in federal court of engaging in verbal and physical sexual harassment, including groping, while he was her supervisor in 2015. She accused the county government of having “a sexually charged, hostile and offensive” workplace and of firing her as retaliation for rejecting and complaining about Morris’ alleged sexual advances.
The lawsuit was settled April 3 on confidential terms, according to attorneys for Owen and the county. A trial, scheduled for April 9, was called off.
Owen’s attorneys had planned to question Morris about an incident nearly 20 years ago that led to his suspension from work as a Norfolk police officer. Norfolk’s police chief told The Virginian-Pilot newspaper at the time that the episode involved a serious breach of police ethics. Prosecutors found no violation of the law or basis for charges, the newspaper said.
Johneal White, Morris’ attorney, did not respond to a request for comment.
Jim Guynn, the county’s attorney, said county officials did not previously know that Morris had been a Norfolk police officer and do not know details of the episode, which happened in 2001.
Morris denies Owen’s accusations, Guynn said. He remains a county employee, Guynn said April 4; county officials have said that he is paid $76,853.
Guynn said Owen was fired in 2016 for job-related reasons including her failure to obtain required state certifications. She sued for unspecified damages in 2017.
Terry Grimes, one of Owen’s attorneys, said his client “was relieved that the case has resolved and is looking forward to moving on with her life.”
Owen began working for the county in January 2014 at $33,776 a year. Morris was hired and became her boss in November of that year. Owen testified at her deposition, which was filed with the court, that Morris sexually harassed her verbally beginning in spring 2015 and physically that summer. Among the incidents, she said, he asked her to describe her first sexual experience, described his first sexual experience, referred to her as his “princess,” asked for inappropriate photographs, asked for sex, offered sex, touched her clothed rear end and reached under her clothes and groped her breasts.
“I told Andy to stop over and over again,” she testified. “I told my direct supervisor to keep his hands off me. Stop it. You’re married, you have children, stop.”
Owen’s legal team received a message about a year after the lawsuit had been filed describing an earlier time in Morris’ life when he worked for Norfolk police. The messenger, who was anonymous, provided information that confirmed attorneys’ suspicions that something had happened while Morris worked in Norfolk, said Brittany Haddox, another member of Owen’s legal team.
The Pilot newspaper reported on Aug. 21, 2001, that Norfolk’s then-police chief, Melvin High, had the previous day suspended a male patrol officer over an incident involving a woman. Investigators had “verified serious ethical misconduct” by the officer, the paper quoted the chief as saying. The chief did not name the ethical violation or the officer.
Haddox, who obtained Norfolk police records by subpoena after the tip, said in court papers and in an interview that the officer suspended on Aug. 20, 2001, was Morris.
A Sept. 15, 2001, article contained more details. It said that the woman had been reported missing to police on Aug. 19 and that the officer had participated in a search for her. The officer saw her on a bridge, the two talked and they “ended up in his patrol car under the bridge,” according to the article. “The pair engaged in consensual sex, then the officer drove the woman back to her nearby apartment, police said.”
The newspaper reported that the officer resigned from the force the same day as the unpaid suspension.
Morris gave a sworn deposition in the Owen case that covered his employment history. In his testimony, which was filed with the court, he said he had worked for Norfolk police. Asked when he left, he said: “2001 vested my retirement and left” according to the transcript. He wasn’t specifically asked why he left and he didn’t volunteer further information.
Norfolk municipal records filed with the court show his last day of work there was Aug. 20, 2001. No other police officers left the city on that day, officials told The Roanoke Times.