$30K settlement set in former Hardeeville officer's wrongful termination suit

rlurye@islandpacket.comDecember 20, 2013 

Hardeeville Police Chief Richard Nagy, left, and Lt. Arnold Middleton

SUBMITTED PHOTO — Submitted photo

A former Hardeeville police officer was awarded a $30,000 settlement earlier this year after she claimed she was sexually harassed and wrongfully fired in 2010. The Police Department contended Leah Frank was fired in December 2010 after she assaulted a suspect during a traffic stop, according to records obtained Monday from the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy.

Frank sued the city in U.S. District Court in June 2012, claiming Police Chief Richard Nagy and Lt. Arnold Middleton made inappropriate comments to her, passed her up for a promotion and fired her because of her gender, her lawsuit states.

On April 22, the town agreed to a $30,000 settlement, which was paid for by the town's insurance, city manager Bob Nanni said last week.

"She was a good officer and did good work there," her attorney, Marshall Horton, said. "The whole situation was unfortunate."

Frank worked for the Bluffton Police Department from 2006 to 2008 before moving to the Hardeeville Police Department in 2009.

On Dec. 8, 2010, a woman filed a complaint with the Hardeeville Police Department alleging Frank physically assaulted her during an arrest earlier that day, according to a report Middleton wrote recommending her dismissal.

The woman had met Frank months earlier, on Sept. 30, while the police officer was off duty in Bluffton, Middleton wrote in the report. The woman said they had a verbal altercation near the McDonald's on Fording Island Road.

On Dec. 8, the same woman had been pulled over by Hardeeville Police Sgt. Gerald Brown for a traffic stop about 12:30 a.m. An audio recorder and in-car video camera recorded the traffic stop, showing the woman "fully cooperating" with Brown as she was arrested for not having a state driver's license, Middleton wrote.

Frank also responded to the traffic stop and could be seen on the video verbally abusing the woman and physically assaulting her by "snatching her cellular phone from her hand then throwing her up against the truck," the report said.

Frank "increased her aggression," while walking the handcuffed woman out of the video's range, where she allegedly slapped her in the face, the report said.

Brown, also a former employee of the Bluffton Police Department, said he did not see the slap, and Frank denied doing so, the report continued.

A third-party polygraph test report, obtained by The Island Packet from the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy, indicated to testers that Frank was lying.

The academy, which maintains records on the employment status of all S.C. police officers, said the Hardeeville Police Department did not provide it with video of the arrest.

The incident is not mentioned in Frank's lawsuit, which maintains she was fired for a "false reason." Beginning in September 2010, Middleton accused Frank of having sexual relations with multiple officers and on one occasion made sexually derogatory comments about her outfit, the lawsuit states.

Frank repeatedly asked Middleton to stop, and when she reported the harassment, Nagy began to sexually harass her, as well, the lawsuit alleges.

Frank was told it was her fault other officers were making sexual comments about her, the suit states, and she was forbidden from contacting fellow male officers.

No action was taken against the male officers, the suit continues; Frank was also passed up for a promotion. On one occasion, Nagy and Middleton reportedly entered her home, threatened to fire her and press criminal charges, and took away her patrol gear, gun and badge.

The city of Hardeeville denied those accusations in its response Aug. 1, 2012.

Attempts Thursday to contact Frank through Horton were unsuccessful. Her attorney said he viewed video of the Dec. 8 arrest and thought the incident was "very much overblown."

"They made a big deal out of something that wasn't a big deal, and I think they took the word of the person in question over her," Horton said. "And I don't think they had a good reason for doing it."

Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.

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