Women sue Cuesta faculty chair alleging sexual harassment, retaliation

A Cuesta College faculty chair is being sued by four women claiming sexual harassment, among other charges.

Three current instructors and one former teacher brought the lawsuit against Don Norton, Cuesta’s division chair of Human Development. It alleges 23 violations.

The women allege that Norton made inappropriate sexual comments, attempted unwanted massages, voiced insulting comments about an employee’s religious beliefs, and retaliated against a woman because she refused to share a hotel room with him while attending a conference.

The suit was filed Dec. 30 in San Luis Obispo Superior Court against Norton, as well as the college and several top officials.

The claims made by Margaret Perez-Sesser, Jan Gillette, Claudia Harmon Worthen and Marilyn Rossa focus on Norton’s alleged comments, actions and retaliatory behavior as well as the college’s alleged failure to “provide a workplace free from unlawful discrimination.”

The allegations represent one side of the story. Cuesta President Gil Stork said Wednesday that “the campus has no comment on personnel issues.”

Each plaintiff is a current employee of the college except for Perez-Sesser, who resigned in 2010.

Gillette alleged that Norton made inappropriate sexual comments regarding female private parts; questioned her about her personal relationships; offered massages, which she refused; made derogatory comments about her religious beliefs; and kept a calendar of bikini models, which he displayed during a staff meeting and which included a “graphic photo” of a female student in a thong.

“(Norton) engaged in a continuous pattern of discrimination and harassment of (Gillette) on the basis of sex, religion and age,” the lawsuit states.

Gillette claims Norton solicited others to report false criticisms and evaluations about her and manipulated her class schedules and workloads.

Gillette, a family studies instructor, claims she complained to five Cuesta deans in an effort to stop the harassment, but no action was taken against Norton.

Perez-Sesser, a former early childhood education instructor at Cuesta, alleges similar work-related retaliation after she refused to share a two-bedroom suite at an out-of-town conference in March 2007 that she and Norton attended.

Perez-Sesser claims Norton then made false accusations about her work performance, stating she was “academically dishonest” in a performance evaluation.

Harmon Worthen alleges “pervasive sexual comments” by Norton, and that he “hired younger employees” and gave them some of her classes.

Rossa, an English instructor, said she was president of Cuesta’s teachers union for 14 years.

Rossa claimed she was retaliated against for helping Gillette and Harmon Worthen with their harassment grievances. Rossa’s claims include being denied a full teaching load even though she had first priority.

Each defendant, except for Perez-Sesser, who taught from 2005 to 2010 at Cuesta, has worked at the local community college for at least 10 years.

The four plaintiffs are seeking unspecified compensation for alleged damage including emotional distress, lost wages and benefits, medical expenses and attorneys’ fees, according to their San Luis Obispo-based attorney, Thomas M. Giovacchini.

A case-management conference is scheduled for 9 a.m. Feb. 23 before Judge Dodie Harman.