Lawsuit: Police sustained abusive, sexist environment

Coatesville officer alleges discrimination, invasion of privacy

By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times

A lawsuit filed by Coatesville Police Officer Amy W. Nicholl accuses the city of allegedly maintaining a hostile work environment that discriminated against women.

A sex-discrimination lawsuit filed by a female officer continues a spate of police litigation in Coatesville.

Filed  Oct. 12 in federal court , the suit by Officer Amy W. Nicholl alleges that she was a victim of sexual harassment and bias ever since joining the department in March 2008. The suit followed a vote less than a week earlier by City Council to transfer about $2.25 million from Coatesville’s trust fund, in part to meet skyrocketing legal expenses.

The suit describes a prurient, hostile work environment and includes salacious allegations against more than half a dozen male colleagues. It names four defendants: the City of Coatesville and three of Nicholl’s supervisors, all of whom took an early-retirement option this past spring. They are former Chief Julius M. Canale, Lt. Rita Shesko, and Det. Gerald Pawling.

Joseph J. Santarone Jr. said he is representing the city and reviewing the complaint to determine whether the other defendants will need separate counsel.  “Unfortunately, I can’t comment until that is sorted out,” he said.

City Manager Kirby Hudson also had no comment on the suit but said he was optimistic that the leading candidate in the search for a new police chief would be hired and begin taking steps to reduce litigation. “We’ve been an easy target,” said Hudson. “That’s got to stop.” So far this year, the city has paid nearly $1 million in legal fees and settlements, mostly police-related.

Stephen I. Baer, who represents Shesko, declined comment.  Robert J. Donatoni, who represents Canale, and Daniel R. Bush, the attorney for Pawling, did not return telephone calls.

Much of the suit focuses on the Aug. 19, 2011, seizure of Nicholl’s Evo 4G, a cellphone that Nicholl bought but used for work; therefore, the city paid her monthly bill, the suit said.  The phone’s confiscation  escalated into a court battle involving allegations of unlawful seizure, sexual impropriety, blackmail, falsified court documents, and evidence-tampering. In late March, the Attorney General’s Office  began an investigation into possible criminal activity, a probe that is continuing.

According to court records, the dispute began Aug. 11, 2011, when Nicholl complained that a group of male officers had suggested that she was appointed to a court liaison job because she was sleeping with Lt. Chris McEvoy, a married superior.  The suit said Nicholl’s complaint about the remarks was overshadowed by investigators’ interest in her relationship with McEvoy, a consensual affair that the city did not prohibit.

The suit said Nicholl, who is represented by the Sidkoff, Pincus and Green law firm in Philadelphia, was threatened by Shesko to relinquish her cellphone, which contained inappropriate messages from Canale,  Pawling, and others as well as photos and videos, “some of which showed plaintiff in revealing and compromising positions.” After the “unlawful search and seizure” of the phone, the suit said Pawling used false information to obtain a sealed search warrant.

Nicholl, one of three females in the department at the time, was interviewed by Christopher P. Gerber, Coatesville’s labor counsel, on Sept. 28, 2011, and Nov. 16, the suit said.  Gerber did not return voice or email messages seeking comment.  During the interviews, Gerber allegedly “attempted to force” Nicholl to admit falsely that McEvoy “had threatened or abused her,” the suit said. It also alleged that Gerber showed Nicholl “sexually-explicit text messages” between her and McEvoy on a large-screen television in view of other officers’ passing by in the hall.

After a Chester County judge ordered the cellphone returned to Nicholl a year ago,  Nicholl “discovered that the phones’ contents had been significantly compromised and tampered with,” the suit said. During a June 9 hearing, Shesko testified that Pawling, who had custody of the phone’s SIM card, told her he lost it; Pawling asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege.

In addition to the cellphone allegations, the suit includes details about alleged sexual advances from colleagues that Nicholl rebuffed as well as sexual incidents involving her superiors. Of the latter, the suit said Nicholl acquiesced twice, “fearing that her promised promotion” to Pawling’s position as a detective in the department’s child abuse/sex crimes division  “would be jeopardized if she refused to comply.”

The suit includes suggestive texts and emails Nicholl received from male colleagues, including supervisors. It alleges that one supervisor used police computers to frequent a dating website “marketed to married people looking to cheat on their spouses,” activity that prompted lascivious discussion in the department.

In addition, the suit said the same supervisor “engaged in sexual acts with a woman in the police station while other male officers of the CPD acted as look-outs” so he would not get caught.  The suit said that none of the behavior alleged by Nicholl resulted in the discipline of any officers and that “clear sexual misconduct involving male officers” occurred with impunity.  For example, “after Canale found an open condom wrapper in one of the city’s undercover police vehicles, neither the CPD nor the city conducted an investigation,” the suit said.

McEvoy has been on paid administrative leave for more than a year. Nicholl returned to work Oct. 1, after months on disability. The suit said she was so distraught by the city’s actions that she “contemplated taking her own life on or about Aug. 22, 2011,” received psychological treatment, and was cleared to resume her job months before the city allowed her to return. Since then, she has been ostracized and subject to random drug and alcohol testing, the suit said.

The suit is seeking compensatory as well as punitive damages for the city’s alleged conduct, which included causing Nicholl pain and suffering, invasion of privacy, and damage to her reputation.

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James Pitcherella

The City of Coatesville desperately needs a qualified Chief of Police. It looks as though we might get one soon.