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Judge: DOJ can join Halcovage lawsuit

A federal judge has ruled the U.S. Department of Justice may join the sexual harassment suit filed against Schuylkill County, Commissioner George F. Halcovage Jr. and other county officials by four women who work in the courthouse.

“In any event, we can readily understand why the conduct described in the complaint filed in this case, which entails allegations of systemic sexual predation, harassment, and retaliation at the highest levels of county government, would be deemed matters of general public importance. Accordingly, we find that intervention is warranted,” United States Magistrate Judge Martin C. Carlson wrote in his ruling.

“We are pleased with Judge Carlson’s recent decision regarding the United States Department of Justice’s Motion to Intervene. We believe Judge Carlson’s opinion is consistent with the law, the facts pled in this matter, and in the best interest of the citizens of Schuylkill County. My clients look forward to working with the United States Department of Justice in proving their claims and holding the Defendants accountable for what we believe are egregious violations of Federal and State laws,” the women’s attorney, Catherine W. Smith, of the Derek Smith Law Group, Philadelphia, said in an emailed statement.

Halcovage’s attorney, Gerard J. Geiger, Stroudsburg, noted that the “DOJ complaint is technically only against the county and not against George Halcovage.”

Attorney Marie Milie Jones, of JonesPassodelis, Pittsburgh, who represents the courthouse, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Carlson handed down the ruling on Thursday. His granting of the DOJ’s motion for intervention means the federal government may have the authority to exercise oversight over the courthouse to avoid any future complaints; review future complaints, write policy and provide training.

The ruling dismissed the objections of the county officials, Halcovage, Bender, Human Resources Director Heidi L. Zula, Assistant County Solicitor/Risk Manager Glenn T. Roth, and Schuylkill County.

Interim Human Resources Director Doreen Kutzler was the exception.

“The defendants, for their part, challenge the United States’ motion to intervene, asserting that the motion is untimely, and they further argue that intervention by the United States would cause undue delay,” Carlson wrote.

He disagreed.

“For their part, the defendants assert that the United States’ motion is untimely because this matter was initially filed over one year prior to the motion to intervene, Carlson wrote.

The lawsuit was filed on March 16, 2021.

“However, the Third Circuit has held that “(t)he mere passage of time … does not render an application untimely,” he wrote.

Carlson noted that the DOJ had to wait until the proper legal procedures were completed.

“As the government’s brief indicates, the United States was unable to file suit until the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) referred the matter to the Attorney General. We agree that a referral from the EEOC was a legal prerequisite to intervention by the United States in this case,” Carlson wrote.

“The Commission did not refer the matter to the Department of Justice until Jan. 14, 2022. After conducting its own independent assessment of the case, and making the necessary determination of public importance, the United States moved to intervene in this case on April 1, 2022. Thus, its motion filed just three months later is not patently untimely,” he wrote.

Carlson also dismissed the objection by the defendants that the intervention would slow down the proceedings.

“At the joint request of the parties, the discovery deadlines in this case have been extended to September of 2022. Additionally, dispositive motions have been resolved within the past week, providing the parties with a clear path forward for their discovery. Furthermore, we are acting promptly to address pending discovery issues and concerns. Thus, there is now more time than initially anticipated by the parties for the United States to take the discovery it needs in this case, and we anticipate that the intervention will not cause an undue delay in this regard,” Carlson wrote.