WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court has denied a former St. Mary’s County deputy sheriff’s claims that he was sexually harassed by a female co-worker and then fired when complained about it.
The ruling by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s dismissal of Steven Vandevander Sr.’s complaints against Sheriff Richard Voorhaar.
Both courts ruled that Vandevander failed to prove that the co-worker’s two alleged propositions created a hostile work environment. They also said he could not show that his firing was related to the complaints he filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — although a state appeals court had overturned the firing and ordered him reinstated.
“Because Vandevander has not shown the decision to terminate him was a pretext for intentional retaliation . we conclude the district court did not err” by finding in favor of the sheriff, the appeals judges wrote in an unpublished opinion Wednesday.
Vandevander claimed that his troubles began in 1997 after he rebuffed advances by Deborah Zylak, a female records supervisor in the sheriff’s office.
That began months of harassment by Zylak and others in the office, he said, including having his performance review lowered, being denied a promotion, having rat poison left in his office mailbox and being reassigned to an office under Zylak’s supervision.
He said the retaliation climaxed in his January 1999 firing by Voorhaar. A police trial board found that Vandevander used excessive force in a December 1997 arrest and then made untruthful statements about it in his report. But instead of the suspension and demotion the board recommended, Voorhaar fired Vandevander.
The Maryland Court of Special Appeals in 2001 overturned both the trial board’s findings and the firing, and ordered Vandevander reinstated.
Vandevander was rehired but has since been fired again, this time for non- disciplinary medical reasons that interfered with his performance, said Sgt. Michael R. Merican, a department internal affairs supervisor.
Neither Vandevander nor his attorney could be reached for comment Thursday.
Voorhaar expressed relief at the federal appeals court’s ruling. He declined to comment on Vandevander’s latest firing, but defended his first decision to fire him as being both appropriate and non-discriminatory.
“I will not have a police officer who abuses the power of his badge and lies about it on my force,” Voorhaar said.
“He was found guilty of untruthfulness and excessive force,” he said. “Either one is a serious enough reason for discharge under certain circumstances. When you put them together — if you let that kind of person remain as a police officer — I’m not going to do that.”
Since his last firing, Vandevander has been arrested by Maryland State Police on charges of prescription forgery and possession of the drug OxyContin with intent to distribute it. He is awaiting trial in April.