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First of three Mosquito Control District lawsuits settled

Tom McLaughlin
tmclaughlin@nwfdailynews.com
Northwest Florida Daily News

SANTA ROSA BEACH — The South Walton Mosquito Control District has paid out $52,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by former employee Emilee Rister.

“I’m not rich by any means,” she said. “I just hope people in the county realize what’s going on there.”

Rister filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in late 2019. In it she claimed she was sexually harassed on the job by a co-worker and that Mosquito Control District administrators retaliated against her when she filed a complaint.

“The district was protecting a sexual assailant, concealing the assault, and demanding the victim hide it too,” the lawsuit said.

As part of the retaliation, the complaint said, Rister was ordered to work a night shift and her hours were cut to the point that she had to resign and seek employment elsewhere.

The settlement agreement was reached following court ordered mediation. It called for Rister to receive $50,000 and the district to cover the $2,000 cost of mediation.

The agreement did not require the district to admit wrongdoing.

“The parties agreed to mediate early to minimize the cost of litigation, and I believe both Ms. Rister and the district benefited from the avoidance of further legal expenses,“ Rister attorney Jim Garrity said.

John MaGee, the chairman of the governing board responsible for oversight of the South Walton Mosquito Control District called Rister’s claim a typical situation of “he said/she said.”

He said the mediation process, required in Florida, prevented district lawyers from presenting a strong case in court.

“We never had the opportunity to show that everything we did was within protocol,” Magee said. “We never proved anything, we never had the chance.”

Rister said, for her, the mediation process had reached a point “where I just had to trust my lawyer.”

She said she is not entirely happy with the agreement or the fact that no significant changes have been made at the district since she made her complaint.

“I’m not done, I have lots to say,” Rister said.

Kenny Hobbs, the man Rister accused of assaulting her, is still employed by the Mosquito Control District and has been promoted since Rister’s departure from the agency.

Hobbs has not responded to efforts to obtain comment.

Harley Sampson, named in the suit as one of the administrators who retaliated against Rister, is now the district director. He was out of the office Monday.

Rister’s legal complaint states that she, a 62-year-old woman who worked as a field technician, was lured by Hobbs, a younger, much larger, heavy equipment operator, to a remote location under the guise that he’d forgotten work-related papers and his eyeglasses.

He “reached through the windows of (Rister’s) work truck, forcibly grabbed her by the shoulders and yanked her as far as he could through the window frame, pushing his tongue into her mouth,” the complaint states.

No significant changes have been made to Mosquito Control District policies regarding sexual harassment since Rister’s lawsuit was filed, said district administrative assistant Shirley Steele.

Procedure existing at the time Rister claimed she was harassed clearly stated, “sexual harassment, both overt and subtle, is strictly prohibited.”

“Our policy is pretty sufficient,” said Steele.

The lawsuit also alleged Hobbs made subtle sexual advances against Rister over a period of time.

Tim Norris, a second Control District commissioner, said the district was happy to put the Rister case behind it.

“We are glad we have resolved the lawsuit and we want to move our group, our employees, forward,” he said.

Norris said that the Mosquito Control District has made settlement offers to two other employees who have also filed lawsuits against the agency.

Peter Brabant claims he was fired based on a year-old disciplinary issue after he went to the Mosquito Control District’s elected commissioners to report former District Director Brewer showed up for work “heavily intoxicated.”

The issue for which Brabant was finally punished centered around his declining to carry out an order from Brewer to drown a raccoon captured in a Mosquito Control District live trap.

Denis Rietenbach, a long-time field technician for the district, claims in a separate suit that he was fired because he fought against discharging illegal chemicals into ditches flowing into Choctawhatchee Bay and that he also resisted orders to drown trapped raccoons.

“We’re waiting on a response to what they want, to settle,” Norris said, speaking of the Brabant and Rietenbach lawsuits.

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