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Filing causes delay

Thomas Doerr
Doerr claims he has 'qualified immunity'

Did President Judge Thomas Doerr have a sexual relationship with a subordinate — and did he subsequently discriminate against her in the workplace?

Doerr delayed answering those questions, raised in a lawsuit against him, by sidestepping a deadline set by Federal District Judge Cathy Bissoon and appealing to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that he has “qualified immunity” and cannot be sued for allegations of sexual assault and discrimination.

Crystal Starnes, a county probation officer, sued Doerr, Deputy Court Administrator Thomas Holman and the Butler County Court system a year ago.

In her lawsuit, Starnes claimed that Doerr hired her as a county probation officer after he started a five-year sexual relationship with her in 2005, calling it a “business relationship.” Her lawsuit claims that Doerr continued to harass her after the sexual relationship ended in 2010.

Until Thursday, Starnes' lawsuit was making its way through the federal district court and it was there that Doerr first claimed that he had “qualified immunity” and couldn't be charged with discrimination.

Responding to this, Judge Bissoon concluded on Oct. 4 that Starnes “sufficiently alleges Defendant Doerr participated in discrete discriminatory acts” for a sex discrimination claim to proceed. She characterized Doerr's immunity claim as “troubling.”

“Doerr's argument is improperly raised and legally unsound,” Bissoon wrote. “It has been settled law since 1979 that the sexual assault can form the basis of a hostile work environment claim.” Bissoon ended the decision by commanding Doerr to answer within 14 days, meaning Doerr would have to respond to Starnes' accusations.

Doerr didn't answer. Instead, he effectively stopped the clock on the original lawsuit's answer deadline by appealing to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, a higher federal court.

Jennifer Gilliland Vanasdale, one of Starnes' lawyers, said about Doerr's immunity claim, “We believe it's untimely and unfortunate, as it is without merit.”She concluded, “We agree with [Bissoon].”In Starnes' wide-ranging lawsuit, she claims that Doerr would initiate sexual encounters with her in a “business relationship” she felt she had little say in, and that she was subsequently the target of workplace harassment and retaliation at the hands of other courthouse employees who developed “resentment, antipathy and anger” toward her because of her relationship with Doerr.Doerr's attorney argued in previous filings that Starnes' lawsuit fails to live up to the legal standard for arguing constitutional violations have occurred.“(Starnes) ... attempts to disguise trivial workplace grievances as alleged violations of her constitutional rights,” a brief filed in support of the motion to dismiss reads, in part.The brief also criticizes Starnes' legal filings as being “pled in dramatacized, conclusory fashion which does not rise to the level of constitutional concern.”Since Starnes' claims don't rise to the level of violations of “'clearly established' constitutional rights,” Thomas McGinnis argues in legal filings, Doerr is entitled to “qualified immunity” from all of the allegations in her complaint.“Qualified immunity protect[s] government's ability to perform its traditional functions ... by helping to avoid 'unwarranted timidity' in performance of public duties, ensuring that talented candidates are not deterred from public service, and preventing the harmful distractions from carrying out work of government that can often accompany damages suits,” the filing states, in part.Starnes' legal team is assessing their options to address the appeal, Gilliland said.

Crystal Starnes