ELYRIA — The sexual harassment lawsuit against former Lorain County Domestic Relations Judge David Berta has been settled with a payout of $180,000 to former Juvenile Court Magistrate Lucinda McConnell and her attorneys.
Assistant County Prosecutor Dan Petticord said the county’s insurance carrier will cover the bulk of the payout, which includes $10,000 that will be given to McConnell as back wages and that she will have to pay taxes on. The county will end up paying only its $5,000 deductible.
Petticord said the settlement, which becomes final next week, contains no admission of liability on the part of the county or Berta.
“It’s a way to close the chapter and move forward,” he said.
The settlement comes after a visiting judge rejected a request by Berta and the county to throw out the lawsuit in July.
Berta, who has long maintained he did nothing wrong, said he had no say over whether the insurance company’s lawyers settled the case, but their reasoning was that it could cost more in legal fees to continue fighting the case than to settle it.
“I would have been happy to try the case, but it was a cost-benefit analysis,” he said.
The former judge, who was unseated last year by Lisa Swenski, said such settlements are common to end protracted and pricey legal fights.
“That’s the line of work, you sue someone with deep pockets and you get paid,” Berta said.
McConnell referred a request for comment to her attorney, who did not return a call Wednesday.
The lawsuit, which was filed just days before Berta lost the March 2012 Democratic primary to Swenski, accused Berta of making inappropriate comments about McConnell, including that her “uterus was dried up” and that she had no sex drive.
He also was accused of calling her a “badge bunny” and discussing the size of her breasts. The lawsuit also said that Berta would make disparaging comments about his female employees and women with cases in his court, who he reportedly called “whores.”
The lawsuit also claimed Berta would scream at McConnell and engage in other intimidating behavior toward her while ignoring misconduct by her male coworkers.
Berta’s lawyers have countered that even if what McConnell accused the former judge of was true, adult humor and off-color language didn’t amount to sexual harassment. They also contended that McConnell herself engaged in sexually charged conversations and didn’t appear offended by profanity.
The rest of Berta’s staff stood by their former boss, saying that he wasn’t intimidating and didn’t make offensive comments to McConnell or others.
Berta also has accused his former bailiff, Jim Maschari, who walked off the job in 2010 after Berta complained he had returned from lunch late, of orchestrating the sexual harassment allegations as revenge for the dispute.
McConnell worked as an assistant county prosecutor before she went to work for Berta when he took the bench in 2007. She abruptly resigned in April 2011 just days after being chastised by Berta for taking off work on a day when his other two magistrates were already off.
McConnell, who took the unexpected leave to care for her sick father, later apologized to Berta, but said in a deposition that she wasn’t actually sorry. She resigned a few days after writing the apology and Berta had his then-secretary, Chris Muska, ask McConnell to reconsider and return to work.
Berta also has criticized the timing of the lawsuit, saying that it was timed to derail his re-election bid. McConnell’s lawyer, Caryn Groedel, has said the lawsuit wasn’t politically motivated.
Swenski said Wednesday that the one time she discussed the possibility of a lawsuit with McConnell she told her not to sue, advice she now regrets giving.
“I didn’t want her to get hurt because I know what plaintiffs go through when they get smeared, and I didn’t want that to happen to her, but I am very happy that it’s over for the county and for Ms. McConnell,” Swenski said. “It was wrong to tell her not to file it. She did the right thing.”
Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or firstname.lastname@example.org.