Woman sues former employer in #MeToo sexual assault case

Hannah Southwick

Beyond dethroning formidable Hollywood executives, the #MeToo movement has inspired a collective awakening. In Waterville, ME, Angela Agganis’ allegation of workplace sexual harassment by a supervisor at a T-Mobile call center in Oakland is slated for trial in federal court.

In a prepared statement from Agganis’ legal team, the use of the #MeToo Sexual Harassment movement identified her case as a local manifestation of the national reckoning organization.

“This decision is important because it re-emphasizes that it’s not enough for an employer to simply have a sexual harassment policy, it must have an effective one,” Valerie Wicks, one of the attorneys representing Agganis, said in the statement. “A policy is not effective if women are subjected to sex-based slurs, unwanted massages and leering in the workplace.”

Agganis filed her lawsuit in October 2015, predating the #MeToo movement, but it has taken over two years for the case to reach trial. Jeffrey Neil Young, a second member of Agganis’ legal team, said that the case has “taken on a life of its own.”

“The allegations and the complaint are contested and denied by T-Mobile and my client feels equally strongly,” Young said in an interview with the Echo.

Agganis’ alleged sexual harassment began after eight years of work as a customer service representative at T-Mobile. The complaint states that following a management reassignment, her new supervisor Gary Rochon allegedly began to sexually harass her through massages and other unwanted physical contact, repeatedly staring “in a sexual manner,” and offering her a ride home against company policy.

According to the complaint, when Agganis brought her situation to the human resource manager’s attention, she was instructed to “just stick it out” until managers were reassigned in the future. In order for an internal investigation to occur, she was allegedly required to sign a confidentiality agreement stating that she would not mention her complaints to her coworkers or anyone other than T-Mobile’s corporate investigators and human resources staff. The National Labor Review Board later found this policy to be illegal and required T-Mobile to rescind it.

“We feel that any woman who has been subjected to sexual harassment needs to have the right to be able to talk about it and seek support from her coworkers and find out if other women have been subjected to similar types of harassment,” Young said. “In this case, we found that a number of other women had felt they had been sexually harassed by the same individual… and the company had not adequately handled those complaints.”

Prior to being hired by T-Mobile, Rochon, a former physician, had his medical license revoked in Wisconsin for having sex with a patient and was later terminated from a job at Kennebec Behavioral Health under accusations of sexual harassment. T-Mobile claims to have been unaware of any past transgressions.

After leaving T-Mobile in 2014, Agganis has given press conferences and collaborated with labor unions to spread the word about her experiences. National periodicals such as Cosmopolitan and the Huffington Post picked up the story. While she has held various jobs, including a brief time working in Colby’s dining halls, Agganis has not had steady employment since leaving T-Mobile.

While #MeToo has amplified the conversation surrounding workplace harassment, the struggles faced by women at work have persisted in the years since the lawsuit was filed. According to Young, most cases of sexual assault go unreported and it is rare for a case to make it this far.

“Right now, in my view as an attorney who has been practicing in this area for thirty years, the law is not serving as a sufficient deterrent,” Young said. “We need more and better training. We need to change the culture in the workplace, and we need to make sure that the women speaking up are not retaliated against.”

And although sexual harassment can occur in any setting, the power imbalance behind some workplace relationships makes reporting complicated. As the Agganis case is on track to go to court, the Maine legislature is reevaluating practices regarding workplace sexual harassment.

Assistant Senate Minority Leader Nate Libby, a Democrat from Lewiston, was inspired to modernize the state’s legislation on sexual harassment after realizing there was no makeup session offered for legislators who did not attend a sexual harassment training when they first took office. After speaking in confidence with women who work in and around the State House, Libby found that most female staffers and some female legislators had experienced sexual harassment throughout the years and nothing had been done to report or combat the issue.

In Feb., the Maine legislature passed a rule requiring every legislator to attend an annual harassment prevention training. Libby is currently working on a bill to extend this requirement to everyone who works in the State House.

“All of the conversations we have been having across the country have spurred this examination of practices around human resources and harassment prevention,” Libby said in a recent interview with the Echo. “I think without the #MeToo movement perhaps we wouldn’t be looking at these issues here in Maine at the State House.”

For businesses outside of the legislature, Maine law requires workplaces with 15 or more employees to conduct a sexual harassment prevention training for all new workers within a year of hiring.

“Maine was one of the first states to pass a really strong sexual harassment prevention training requirement among businesses and institutions, but that was back in the 90s,” Libby said. “If a business complies with that law you can have a person who has been working there for 15 years who hasn’t gone through a sexual harassment training for 14.”

In addition to strengthened legislation, organizations offering support for survivors of sexual harassment and assault play an integral role. Funding sexual assault support centers throughout the state, the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MCASA) ensures that survivors have access to necessary support.

“#MeToo has impacted our organization in a number of ways,” Cara Courchesne, communications director of MCASA, said in an interview with the Echo. “I think that people who wouldn’t have necessarily thought that our services were for them have identified us. We’ve always been responsive to people who have been sexually harassed, but I think a lot of the time people don’t connect sexual harassment with sexual violence and I think that’s changing.”

In an effort to expand beyond 24 hour phone service, MCASA introduced a text/chat service in March allowing survivors to receive confidential support by text from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Serving as a voice for women on a myriad of issues, the Maine Women’s Lobby partners with MCASA to provide survivor support and to promote legislation.

“I think after #MeToo there’s greater awareness among all of us about the degree to which virtually every woman has experienced some degree of harassment, unwanted attention…and that it’s that much more complicated at work,” Eliza Townsend, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, said in an interview with the Echo.

In the wake of #MeToo, Maine women are seeking support and change in workplaces from the customer service industry to the state legislature.

“No working woman should have to endure sexual harassment on the job. And no woman should be denied the right to speak to others about what occurred,” Agganis said in a statement. “I hope this suit will ensure that women working at T-Mobile are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve and encourage women everywhere to come forward and put an end to intolerable working conditions.”