A former police sergeant filed a civil lawsuit June 1 alleging she was harassed during her 16-year employment with the Delaware State Police.
In a lawsuit filed in Delaware's U.S. District Court, Nicole L. Oldham states she was sexually harassed in a hostile work environment, physically assaulted, and forced out on medical leave before the Delaware State Police terminated her employment with them involuntarily.
Oldham demands a trial by jury and is seeking compensation for lost pay and benefits; punitive damages under the Civil Rights Act and Delaware's Discrimination in Employment Act; attorney's fees and costs; and a permanent injunction that would expunge Oldham's personnel files of any derogatory, false, or misleading information.
In the event the two sides settle out of court, any settlement made between Oldham and the Delaware State Police and Department of Safety and Homeland Security would be confidential under Delaware law that keeps details of settlements secret. Rep. Steve Smyk, R-Milton, who is named in the lawsuit, said he would love to see legislation passed that would open such settlements between the state and individuals for public review.
“I think it would be wonderful, because it's full disclosure to the public. It's [taxpayer] money,” he said.
Oldham was a member of the DSP 2002 recruiting class – and the first female voted to be academy class president, according to the lawsuit. She was promoted over the years, earning the rank of sergeant in 2011. She also was the first woman to be selected as a fatal accident investigator in the collision reconstruction unit, and the first woman selected as officer in charge of the Governor's Executive Protection Unit, among other accomplishments and accolades. Her final performance review given in 2018 rated her as “consistently exceeds expectations,” and the lawsuit states, she “received virtually no written discipline” from 2002 to 2017.
After Oldham's promotion to the fatal unit in 2007, the lawsuit states, her superior, Sgt. Barry Dean, required her to deliver more death notifications and investigate more child fatalities than her male peers.
“Rather than assigning her only to deaths of strangers, [DSP] and Sgt. Dean often assigned [Oldham] to provide more death notifications for the deaths of individuals whom she knew personally,” the lawsuit states.
For example, the suit states, Oldham responded to the murder of Georgetown Police Officer Chad Spicer, who is described as her close, personal friend. While at the crime scene, the suit states, Dean ordered Oldham to stand in Spicer's blood.
The lawsuit also states Dean ordered Oldham to identify a close friend who died in a car crash with her 2-year-old son.
“In so doing, Dean shook the bloody face of her corpse at [Oldham] and then dropped the body toward the ground before [Oldham] caught the lifeless body,” the lawsuit states.
Dean then ordered Oldham to search the vehicle, the suit states, even though he knew the boy had already been removed. The woman was the wife of the late Cpl. William Matt, and the boy was his son.
In contrast, the suit states, Oldham's male peers provided death notifications mostly for the deaths of strangers.
Oldham was assigned to so many fatalities and death notifications that she was referred to as “The Death Cloud” by Dean and other members of the fatal unit.
DSP executive staff knew about the inequitable number of death notifications and child fatality investigations she was sent on, but took no action to correct the disparate treatment, the lawsuit states.
Now retired, Dean said he hasn’t read the lawsuit in its entirety, but he takes issue with information included in published articles. For one, he said, DSP didn’t do death notifications at the time. It was a separate unit that did death notifications back then, he said. “She may have done some, but we didn’t do them. That’s a complete misrepresentation.”
Dean said the lawsuit description of what happened with the officer’s deceased wife and Chad Spicer are a misrepresentation of what really happened.
“When the issue with Officer Spicer occurred, she did not work for me. I was not her supervisor. I was not at the scene. So if that’s in the lawsuit, it’s a complete fabrication,” Dean said. “I hope it goes forward to trial, because you would see a completely different side of the story.”
Pattern of harassment
Harassment against Oldham began early on in her career, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit states former Trooper Steve Smyk, who now serves as a state legislator representing Milton and Lewes, circulated an email claiming Oldham conducted a police stop while her child was in the car, and that the car was then carjacked. Over the course of nine years, the suit states, Smyk harassed her three times, but no further details are provided. “Smyk received a talking to, but no discipline,” the suit states.
During that time, the suit states, Dean mocked Oldham and encouraged Smyk's harassment of her.
“[DSP] told [Oldham] to just steer clear of Smyk because this is how he is and he will just continue to bother [Oldham],” the suit states.
Smyk said he could not comment on the pending litigation, but added there is another side to the story.
“I didn't do anything that could put my job or family in jeopardy,” he said.
Smyk said he would like the case to go to trial because he can provide witnesses who would prove he did nothing wrong.
Other examples of harassment occurred early on in Oldham's career while she was on vacation. These included returning to work and finding her vehicle had flat tires, equipment missing, or lubricant on the door handles and steering wheel. Her mailbox was also vandalized with derogatory stickers and pictures.
According to the lawsuit, harassment continued in 2013 when Oldham was assigned to the Governor's Executive Protection Unit. When Oldham asked for a free housing benefit her male peers get, the suit states, a lieutenant used a crude term to say she wouldn't receive the benefit. Oldham paid $500 a month to live in New Castle County during her time with the EPU, while a male peer was allowed to commute from Sussex County. The suit states he was paid overtime for his commuting time even though DSP operating procedures do not allow such payment.
Oldham reported ongoing overtime fraud and her sex-based harassment, but when nothing was done, the suit states, she requested a transfer from EPU in 2016.
However, the suit states, sexual harassment and false rumors connected to Oldham's position with the EPU continued when Sgt. J.B. Mitchell said Oldham was reassigned from the EPU to patrol “because [she] had been sleeping with males while on duty.”
After Oldham was reassigned to patrol, the suit states, Mitchell said she worked on the road instead of desk work in order to have sex with co-workers while on duty.
Oldham confronted Mitchell, who laughed it off and continued to spread false rumors, the suit states. When Oldham reported the rumors to Capt. Rodney Layfield, the suit states, “Layfield said she needed to have thicker skin and not let what someone else said about her bother her.”
Layfield never addressed Mitchell formally about the rumors or the sexual harassment, the suit states.
Mitchell has since retired from the force; he declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Retaliation and termination
By 2016, Oldham was transferred to Troop 4 where retaliation and harassment continued, according to the lawsuit.
Oldham, then a sergeant, argued with Lt. John McColgan over Oldham's shift workers when McColgan put his hands on her chest and pushed her out of his office, the suit states.
The next day, the suit states, Layfield accused Oldham of insubordination and conduct unbecoming an officer.
Harassment continued, the suit states, causing Oldham to break down in tears. By January 2018, Layfield transferred Oldham to Troop 5 effective two months later; about a week later, Oldham's doctor ordered her to be placed on indefinite medical leave for stress and depression.
The suit states Layfield violated Oldham's privacy by telling a Troop 5 lieutenant that Oldham was out for mental issues. Rumors circulated that Oldham had lost her mind, the suit states.
By the end of October, former DSP Col. Nathaniel McQueen Jr. informed Oldham that DSP “was separating her from employment effective Dec. 31, 2018.”
McQueen now serves as secretary of the Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security. DSHS spokesman Arshon Howard said the department is unable to comment on any pending litigation.
Master Cpl. Gary Fournier said the Delaware State Police is also unable to comment on any pending litigation.
“The Delaware State Police follows the scope of the Respectful Workplace and Anti-Discrimination Policy in which we strive to create and maintain a work environment where people are treated with dignity, decency and respect,” he said.
Fournier said Layfield and McColgan remain employed with DSP.