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(Updated With Documents) Canton Settles Claim Against Chief Administrative Officer After Harassment Complaint

Executive assistant claimed discriminatory practices; town claims performance, actions were at issue.

After receiving complaints of discriminatory practices against Chief Administrative Officer Robert Skinner, the Board of Selectmen recently authorized a settlement agreement with executive assistant Michelle Schroder. The town alleges that Schroder’s performance and behavior was at issue.

The agreement, according to documents released by the town’s labor and employment attorney Tuesday, agrees to give Schroder $55,000, three weeks of vacation time and a letter of recommendation in exchange for a voluntary Aug. 22, 2012 resignation, withdrawing the claims and making no future ones against the town. Town officials said $15,000 will come from the town's insurance carrier and $40,000 from an insurance line in the selectmen's operating budget. The vacation pay, an amount not yet specified, will come from another budget line item designed to cover such expenses for employees that leave, town officials said.

In February of 2012, Schroder filed an “affidavit of illegal discrimination practice” with the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.

The complaint alleges that beginning in October of 2008, several actions and remarks by Skinner made her uncomfortable and were inappropriate.

In one instance, she alleges Skinner asked her to "turn around" so he could see an outfit that left her shoulders exposed. 

"This comment made me very uncomfortable," the document states. 

She did make an allegation of touching. From 2008 to 2011, according to the statement, Skinner often stand behind her at her computer and sometimes "would put his hands on my shoulders and rub my upper back to tell me I was 'doing a good job,'" the claim states. 

The town filed a response to each accusation, in some cases admitting basic facts or refuting the charges. It also accuses Schroder of some inappropriate behavior and performance issues. 

The town did not address "events occurring prior to August 25, 2011,” stating they were "time barred" due to the date the complaint was filed.

The response, for example, denies any incident of rubbing of the shoulders and states that with an older office layout Skinner had to stand behind her "make corrections to the Board of Selectmen’s minutes and other documents directly from her computer. The way the office was set up made it impossible to see the monitor unless Mr. Skinner went behind the Complainant’s desk and the Complainant stated that it was fine for him to do so. When the offices were moved to the second floor in the first week of March 2009, this activity stopped as a result of the layout of the new office."

Skinner also talked about Schroder's tattoos and piercings, and had bouts of anger and made her CDs with songs like "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy " with a reference to "EAGW" — Executive Assistants Gone Wild, according to her complaint.

The town's response does state the two would often talk about their personal lives, frequently spoke about music and that Skinner made Schroder the CD but that he believes she labeled herself EAGW and had nicknames for several town employees. 

In one situation, when it was cold and raining, Skinner told Schroder "the one thing that does not get cold on me is my hands," according to her statement. 

The town's response acknowledges Skinner may have stated his hands "are never cold" but contends that the town purchased Schroder a space heater since she often "complained about being cold."

The town's response also alleges Schroder discussed bedroom practices and purchases of sexual aids and movies. It also states she displayed some inappropriate behavior and in one case had a sticker on her dashboard with a sexual reference.

In her complaint, Schroder alleges he made uncomfortable statements about his desire to lose weight and his home life and even chose vehicles based on her preferences. 

The response also denies Skinner chose vehicles based on her preferences and alleges it was Schroder who offered information on her tattoos and piercings.

The documents also states Schroder received verbal and written warnings in 2011 for poor performance. 

In her statement, Schroder alleged that many of those were retaliatory actions or included situations, such as child-care arrangements, she had discussed with the town.

The town, on the other hand, alleges that Schroder’s performance continued to be an issue and the situation did not improve.

Schroder, according to town records, started on Sept. 22, 2008. Skinner started on July 7, 2008.

The statement says Schroder first met Skinner in the fall of 2006 when she was an administrative assistant for the town of Columbia, where Skinner worked as town administrator. She calls the relationship in Columbia and initially in Canton as "cordial."  

In a statement released to the press after Freedom on Information Act filings, the town’s employment and labor counsel, Michael C. Harrington of Murtha Collins LLP, said Schroder made the complaint after she was spoken to about work performance issues in the summer of 2011.

“The First Selectman requested the Town’s labor counsel meet with Ms. Schroder and investigate her complaint. Labor Counsel concluded that Ms. Schroder had not been harassed in any manner and attempted to address her performance issues. Ms. Schroder’s performance did not improve and the following year she filed a complaint with the CHRO,” the statement reads.

The town was prepared to defend Schroder’s accusation, but the settlement presented an opportunity to settle the matter at a lower cost, Harrington said.

First Selectman Richard Barlow said selectmen unanimously agreed to the settlement following an executive session discussion on Aug. 22. 

Patch has left a message for Pattis Law Firm of Bethany, which represented Schroder in her complaint but has not yet received a response. 

Mike August 30, 2012 at 03:36 PM
Perhaps it is time for the town to consider Mr. Skinners services should be elsewhere. It is apparent his behavior is inappropriate for the position he holds.
Louise Landry August 30, 2012 at 04:14 PM
Mr. Fitts, I certainly hope you continue to inform the taxpayers properly and fairly and do this whole calamity some justice. Putting the entire document up, while informative, is still disturbing to me because I just don’t believe the Town’s response. I hope you do some more investigative journalism that that would show that Schroder really is not the one at fault here. The way this is presented it kind of makes Skinner look like he did nothing wrong, and in fact makes the VICTIM…. sorry, Schroder, look like the aggressor. Think about it readers: If she was such a poor performer and terrible person, WHY would the town choose to dole out that kind of money to her, let alone keep her employed at all?? What about getting copies of her annual performance reviews? Oh, maybe they don't exist any more... Did anyone know that she and Skinner worked together in Columbia, and then when Skinner left and went to Canton, she followed soon after. Why? Because she was a terrible worker? Probably not! Maybe try to confirm that! Maybe try to obtain some of the supporting docs that are not in the complaint, but would probably all but prove that performance was really not the issue. In general, if something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t. Well, something doesn’t seem right here. It seems to me the town is staggering to save face by hurling out a bunch of outright lies and misstatements. Self preservation at its lowest form, hard at work. John Fitts, please expose the truth!
John Schroder August 30, 2012 at 09:06 PM
Forget about Canton’s “town labor council”, they can make any “conclusion” they want about this complaint without regard to fairness, justice or recourse, and it seems they did just that, all the while probably expecting (and hoping) that Michelle would just cower in a corner and “go away”… well, she didn’t, and good for her! Her job performance was in fact never an issue; her yearly job evaluations were all excellent and would serve to disprove the town's false claim otherwise. This complaint, at the state CHRO level, passed the initial merit assessment phase, which means that the State of Connecticut determined that her complaint warranted an investigation. Yes, the SAME investigation the Town of Canton eventually appeared to twist around and vilify her with! She was not thrilled about, but was absolutely prepared to, take this complaint beyond CHRO if necessary... <continued below>
John Schroder August 30, 2012 at 09:07 PM
<continued>... An even remotely intuitive reader should infer from this, and other articles, that the Town of Canton quite possibly feared they had a losing battle on their hands and wanted to cut their losses. I would bet that anyone that has taken the time to really get to know Michelle would agree that she is one of the friendliest, most diligent, honest and kindest people they know. She has nothing to be ashamed of, because an unbiased, intensive investigation would show that she did nothing to deserve the terrible treatment the Town of Canton gave her. She can hold her head high knowing this. In my opinion all Robert Skinner can hold is his new baggage. Hey Bob! Hope it’s heavy! Good job, Canton! Stand by your man!!
kim hathaway September 04, 2012 at 09:42 PM
I'm late in reading this story. but am amazed that Mr. Skinner was allowed to keep his job. Any company would have fired him. Obviously if Ms. Schroder was awarded what looks to be a year's salary, there were serious concerns on behalf of the Selectman. Why was Mr. Skinner protected at such an expense to the town, and to Ms. Schroder's reputation? There's more to this story Canton Patch.

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