Sniffing 'dirty panties' joke listed in lawsuit filed against Walton County Sheriff's Office

Tom McLaughlin
Northwest Florida Daily News

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — A finance clerk employed by the Walton County Sheriff's Office has filed a lawsuit alleging gender discrimination and claiming she's been subjected to working in a hostile environment.

Tammy Bradley states in her legal action that she and others have been groped and battered by county Emergency Medical Services Chief Tracey Vause and that Sheriff Michael Adkinson and his command staff have not only ignored the issue, but retaliated against her for bringing it to them. 

Bradley, "has been and continues to be subjected to a hostile work environment, disparate treatment, different terms and conditions of employment and was held to a different standard because of her gender and, because she reported (the) sheriff's unlawful activities, she has been subjected to retaliation," says the lawsuit, filed by Tallahassee attorney Marie Maddox.

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The lawsuit alleges Bradley has been treated less favorably than other, similarly situated, male employees in pay scale, job duties, investigations, punishment and corrective action for wrongdoing.

Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson

Filed Jan. 8, the suit states that in August 2019 Bradley lodged a formal complaint against Vause, claiming that he had made inappropriate comments and touched her and others inappropriately. 

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It states Vause groped Bradley and other female workers "while in the supply room or other areas of the office where Vause had no business being." The groping, the lawsuit said, consisted of unwanted hugs, running hands down women's backs and shoulder rubbing.

The women "expressed that they were uncomfortable, but Vause refused to stop," the suit said. 

Bradley contends that within a nine-day period that Vause put his hand on her leg without warning, commented about a dress she was wearing in a way that made her feel "uncomfortable and objectified" and "started talking about (Bradley's) dirty panties while making sniffing noises and motions with his hands in front of her and gesturing putting the imaginary panties into his pocket for later." 

Tracey Vause

The original complaint states that Vause's panties joke came after Bradley complained about a group of firefighters lingering inside her home following an incident there. 

"He said they could very easily pick up money or objects left out. ... He said that they could pick up my dirty panties off the floor and then he held his hands to his nose and acted like he sniffed," the complaint said.

"I was completely in shock over what happened. I just walked away and returned to my office," the complaint said.

The Sheriff's Office on Thursday turned over the complete internal investigation that was conducted following Bradley's complaint. Investigators found that Vause had engaged in inappropriate conduct by touching the female employees without their consent and also that he had engaged in inappropriate conversation.

It said the behavior did not rise to the level of sexual harassment and Vause was issued a letter of caution and a written reprimand. 

"His actions did not rise to the level of suspension or termination," said Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Corey Dobridnia.

Vause told the investigator conducting the in-house probe that he recalled the discussion of undergarments differently than Bradley had. He said he did not believe he had used the word "panties."

Also Thursday, Sheriff Adkinson issued a statement in response to Bradley's lawsuit. 

"An internal investigation has been thoroughly executed resulting in a clear conclusion; the incident in question did not rise to the level of termination or suspension for Chief Tracey Vause. The initial investigation and video evidence in this matter speak for themselves," Adkinson said.

"The Walton County Sheriff’s Office investigates all complaints of sexual harassment meticulously, making the accusations now coming forth during civil litigation frustrating. Any claim of wrong-doing on the agency’s behalf during the internal investigation process is simply erroneous and unfounded," Adkinson said. "Our commitment to providing a safe environment for our employees has and always will be of the utmost importance."

Bradley accused the Sheriff's Office of altering a video of the incident in which Vause grabbed her leg "to make it seem as though (Bradley) acquiesced to the groping." The altered video was presented to internal affairs and agency administrators said that they could not find the original, the suit said.

The lawsuit claims Bradley has a copy of the unaltered tape shot in the Sheriff's Office supply room. Efforts to reach Maddox, Bradley's attorney, were not successful. 

Bradley alleges that though internal investigators sustained a single allegation against Vause, "the results were not taken seriously" and "the results of the investigation and punishment were inadequate." 

"It did not serve to deter Vause's behavior, which continued with the sheriff's knowledge and ratification," the suit said. "The sheriff failed to follow up and ensure Vause's behavior was effectively curtailed." 

The Sheriff's Office's human resources director and Maj. Audie Rowell called Bradley into an office and told her that the allegations she had made against Vause were not sustained and unfounded, the suit said. It was only after obtaining a copy herself that she learned the charge had been sustained. 

The lawsuit alleges that since Bradley filed her complaints, "the actions and hostility towards her have escalated."

"She has been ostracized by male employees and continually is fearful of contrived allegations against her and possible termination," the lawsuit said. 

It claims the Florida Commission on Human Relations found in June 2020 that Bradley had provided reasonable cause to show the Sheriff's Office had created a hostile work environment and that she "was subjected to unwelcome harassment that was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of her employment and create a discriminating, abusive working environment."  

Bradley has charged the Sheriff's Office with gender discrimination, creating a hostile work environment based on gender, retaliation and battery due to Vause touching her "in an offensive and harmful manner."

The suit seeks damages for grave mental anguish, pain and suffering, loss of capacity for the enjoyment of life, embarrassment, humiliation, bodily injury, loss of reputation, loss of employment opportunities, lost wages and the loss of other emoluments. 

Bradley seeks an order that the Sheriff's Office obey the laws and award her compensatory damages and for economic loss. It also calls for an award of attorney's fees and costs.