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Williams v. South Dakota Dep't of Agriculture

February 24, 2010

IN THE MATTER OF THE CHARGE OF SANDRA M. WILLIAMS, APPELLANT,
v.
SOUTH DAKOTA DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, APPELLEE.



APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE SIXTH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT HUGHES COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA HONORABLE JOHN BROWN Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Konenkamp, Justice

CONSIDERED ON BRIEFS ON JANUARY 13, 2010

[¶1.] This is a consolidated appeal by an employee who was discharged for unsatisfactory work performance. Believing that she was fired in retaliation for making a complaint about sexual harassment, the employee brought a claim against her employer with the South Dakota Department of Labor, Division of Human Rights, and also filed a grievance with the Career Services Commission. Both agencies ruled against the employee, and the circuit court affirmed. We also affirm.

Background

[¶2.] Sandra Williams began employment on September 9, 2004, as a secretary for the South Dakota Department of Agriculture. On October 5, 2007, her employment was terminated for unsatisfactory work performance. Williams filed a charge of discrimination against the Department of Agriculture with the South Dakota Division of Human Rights (Division). She alleged that she was subjected to a sexually hostile work environment and that she was retaliated against by being discharged after complaining about it. The Division conducted an independent investigation and accepted documentary evidence from Williams and the Department of Agriculture. Thereafter the Division concluded that probable cause did not exist to support either claim and dismissed the charges.

[¶3.] Williams also filed a grievance with the Career Services Commission (CSC). She claimed that the Department of Agriculture did not have just cause to terminate her employment, but rather fired her in retaliation for making or reporting a sexual harassment claim. The CSC held a hearing. Williams, her supervisors, and several coworkers testified. After the hearing, the CSC issued a memorandum decision and findings of fact and conclusions of law ruling that the Department of Agriculture had good cause to end her employment for unsatisfactory work performance.

[¶4.] Williams appealed both decisions to the circuit court. The appeals were consolidated and a hearing was held. The circuit court affirmed both rulings. Williams now appeals to this Court. She asserts that the Division abused its discretion by performing a cursory investigation of her claims, issued clearly erroneous findings of fact, and erred when it concluded her employment was terminated for unsatisfactory performance. Williams further claims that the CSC erred when it concluded that she was properly discharged for unsatisfactory work performance and that her employment was not affected by the sexual comments made. We granted the Department of Agriculture's motion to consolidate the appeals.

Standard of Review

[¶5.] Contrary to both parties' contentions, we no longer review whether there was substantial evidence in the record to support the agencies' decisions. That invalid standard was rectified more than ten years ago in Sopko v. C&R Transfer Co., Inc., 1998 SD 8, ¶7, 575 NW2d 225, 228-29. Rather, our standard of review is controlled by SDCL 1-26-36, requiring us to give great weight to the findings of the agency and reverse only when those findings are clearly erroneous in light of the entire record. When the record before the agency consists entirely of documentary evidence, our review is de novo. Vollmer v. Wal-Mart Store, Inc., 2007 SD 25, ¶12, 729 NW2d 377, 382 (citations omitted). Similarly, when the issue is a question of law, our review is de novo. Id.

(citation omitted).

Analysis and Decision

[¶6.] Although the claims and evidence presented by Williams in both proceedings were substantially similar, the CSC held a hearing and accepted live testimony and the Division considered only documentary evidence. This distinction requires the application of different standards of review. See Vollmer, 2007 SD 25, ¶12, 729 NW2d at 382 (citations omitted). We give great weight to the findings of fact of an administrative body, except when evidence was presented in documentary form, which we review de novo. Id. Therefore, we address the administrative appeals separately.

1. Division of Human Rights Appeal

[ΒΆ7.] In her claim against the Department of Agriculture that she was subjected to a sexually hostile work environment and retaliated against by being discharged, Williams presented evidence that a co-employee, Darwin Kurtenbach, made multiple sexually-motivated remarks in July 2006 in her presence, although not directed at her. One such comment was from Kurtenbach to another employee, in which he said that the employee should put a "CH" after the "BIT" initials on her shirt. Williams also heard Kurtenbach say "secretaries do not do anything and that is why the pay is low" and "women are only good for one thing." She told a coworker, Tammy McGill-Bennett, that she was offended by the comments. Eventually, the fact Williams was offended traveled through the office to her supervisor, Kevin Fridley. According to Williams, after Fridley discussed the incident with her, she was badgered daily and her work was increasingly scrutinized. Williams claimed that from ...


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