CARIBOU, Maine — An Aroostook County woman who was sexually assaulted by the former Caribou fire chief in December 2011 filed suit against both her assailant and the municipality in U.S. District Court in Bangor on Tuesday.
Whitney Nichols of Caribou is suing the city of Caribou and former Fire Chief Roy Woods, 70, of Caribou.
In the suit filed in Bangor court, Nichols alleges violations of her liberties under the Maine Human Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees each person equal protection under the law.
She is seeking a jury trial and unspecified compensation for damages and lost wages.
Woods pleaded guilty in June 2013 to five misdemeanor charges of unlawful sexual contact, assault and unlawful sexual touching after Nichols and another young woman who had been employed by the city came forward to report the crimes against them. Woods resigned in January 2012 after a 44-year career, having spent the last 21 years as head of fire, ambulance and emergency management services for the city. He was sentenced to one month in jail.
According to the civil lawsuit filed against Woods and the city this week, Nichols was 17 when she first began working as a part-time janitor cleaning the emergency operations center for the Caribou Fire and Ambulance Department. Between Nov. 18, 2011, and Dec. 23, 2011, Woods subjected Nichols to sexual harassment, the lawsuit states, including unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.
Specifically, the suit states that Woods repeatedly hugged her, putting his hands around her waist; texted her after hours; referred to her as his “girlfriend”; repeatedly asked her what she had gotten him for Christmas; and sexually assaulted her on Dec. 23, 2011.
The sexual assault happened after Nichols told Woods that she was interested in joining the city emergency response team. Woods told her that he had to give her a “physical” before she could join, according to the civil suit. On Dec. 23, 2011, when Woods and Nichols were the only two people inside the emergency operations center, Woods told Nichols that he wanted to conduct a physical.
Woods then used a stethoscope to listen to her lungs before starting to assault her, according to the suit.
Nichols vehemently objected, jumped off the table and tried to leave, the suit states, but Woods grabbed her from behind and tried to assault her again. Nichols again tried to leave, but Woods hugged and tried to kiss her. She then escaped and ran out the door.
Woods lied when he said that a physical was needed to join the city emergency response team, according to the suit, and John P. Gause, Nichols’ lead attorney from the Bangor firm of Eastern Maine Law, maintains that the “physical” was simply a ruse to sexually assault Nichols.
The suit also states that Woods had sexually harassed and sexually assaulted other women while working for the city of Caribou, including a 25-year-old victim he was found guilty of abusing in the 2013 court case.
It also contends that former City Manager Steven Buck knew or should have known about Woods’ sexual harassment of city employees, including Nichols, and that the city knew or should have known about Woods’ sexual harassment of city employees, including Nichols.
The suit also refers to a complaint filed by Nichols with the Maine Human Rights Commission in which she states that when she was hired to clean the city’s emergency services offices, another employee there told her to “stay away from the old pervert,” meaning the former fire chief.
The civil suit states that the city violated the Maine Human Rights Act because both the city and Woods knew that the act prohibits sexual harassment, and Nichols was subjected to unlawful employment discrimination in violation of the act. It also alleges that the city is liable for Woods’ sexual harassment because he had supervisory authority over Nichols.
Linda McGill, the city’s attorney, said Wednesday that she would not comment on the civil lawsuit since she had not yet seen it.
But in her response to Nichols’ complaint to the Maine Human Rights Commission earlier this year, McGill said that when the city learned about the sexual assault, it took quick corrective action to remedy the situation.
According to a report by human rights investigator Michele Dion, McGill also told her that the city of Caribou was not liable for the chief’s sexual harassment of Nichols because “it had no prior knowledge that would have led it to believe that the fire chief was likely to engage in this sort of behavior.”
Woods is accused of having violated Nichols’ rights under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because Woods was the person responsible for administering the city’s sexual harassment policy within the Caribou Fire and Ambulance Department, according to the lawsuit. Woods knew that the Equal Protection Clause prohibited his sexual harassment of Nichols and when he allegedly sexually harassed her, he was acting as the fire chief.
The city also is accused of violating Nichols rights under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Nichols claims that she was subjected to a hostile work environment after she reported what happened.
She claims that the city retaliated against her by cutting her hours and assigning her to work in a different location after she informed her employer about the assault, and that she felt that some members of the fire and ambulance department were ostracizing her through their gestures and expressions.
She resigned in June 2012, due to pregnancy, the reduction in hours and the feeling of being ostracized, according to the suit.