PITTSFIELD — Allegations of sexual harassment and workplace retaliation at BerkshireWorks Career Center will proceed to the next phase of the complaint process after the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination issued a ruling of "probable cause" in the case.
The complaint was filed in September 2014 by former employee Jodi Steele, who served as office manager at the career center, and she names former Executive Director William Monterosso, BerkshireWorks and the city of Pittsfield.
The next step in the MCAD process is expected to be an effort among the parties to reach a settlement prior to a final ruling by the commission.
Steele alleges that she was repeatedly improperly touched and harassed through sexually suggestive comments made by Monterosso during his brief stint in the post, from January to April 2014.
Monterosso was placed on administrative leave in early April by then-Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi and did not return to BerkshireWorks while a settlement agreement ending his employment was negotiated.
According to Steele's attorney, Monterosso, who could not be reached for comment, has not been involved in the case and has not responded to the complaint. The city and BerkshireWorks have responded to Steele's allegations.
As the mayor of the largest municipality in the regional employment and training office's region, Bianchi had hired Monterosso, replacing former Executive Director John Barrett III. Later in 2014, Bianchi named Kenneth Demers as executive director.
Another complaint filed with the MCAD at the same time by another former female BerkshireWorks employee is still pending, according to attorney Djuna Perkins, of DP Law of Boston, who represents both women.
That complaint — filed against BerkshireWorks and Monterosso — alleges sexual harassment, a hostile work environment, retaliation and inadequate remedial measures and states that the second woman witnessed some of the incidents of harassment described by Steele.
According to the MCAD investigation report, Steele alleged further that Monterosso retaliated against her on April 9, 2014, when she said he shouted profanities at her before leaving the office, and she stated in the complaint that she began to fear for her safety.
In the conclusion of MCAD's Aug. 12 notification to the parties involved, the letter states: "A finding of probable cause is recommended against William Monterosso, BerkshireWorks career center and the city of Pittsfield for discrimination based on sexual harassment and retaliation."
The notice is signed by MCAD Investigator Maryanne Magnier, Enforcement Adviser Jennifer Laverty and the investigating commissioner, MCAD Chairwoman Jamie Williamson.
In the investigation report, Steele alleges that a number of incidents of sexual harassment took place, beginning as soon as Monterosso began at the North Street career center in January 2014. The narrative of her allegations concludes with: "This is just a summary of the most significant incidents of sexual harassment that occurred. There were many other times when Monterosso grabbed or touched [Steele] against her wishes. She also saw him sexually harassing others on many occasions."
Steele alleges Monterosso made numerous sexually suggestive remarks and touched her improperly on several occasions.
Entities deny responsibility
In a summary and analysis of the situation, the MCAD investigation report states that the city "argues that the city is not [Steele's] employer" and that BerkshireWorks is her employer.
Meanwhile, according to the report, "BerkshireWorks contends that the city is [Steele's] employer, and claims that [Steele] is not its employee."
The city also maintains that, although the executive directors "can be hired, evaluated and terminated by the city," Monterosso "is not a city employee," the report states.
And the city maintains that it only investigated the sexual harassment allegations against Monterosso because the person designated to hear such complaints at BerkshireWorks was the director, who had been named in the complaints.
BerkshireWorks maintained to the MCAD investigators that Monterosso was hired in January and suspended in April by the city, and that "BerkshireWorks was not [Monterosso's] employer and cannot be held responsible for his conduct."
In its response, the city said city officials did not learn from BerkshireWorks about the alleged harassment until April 7. It states that 10 individuals were then interviewed by the city Personnel Department, including Monterosso, who was soon after placed on administrative leave and never reinstated.
The relationship between the city, BerkshireWorks and Berkshire Regional Employment Board, which charters the career center and is responsible for overseeing programming, is a complex one.
The lead elected official in the region's largest city hires, or fires, the career center executive directors, and the state and federal grant funding for BerkshireWorks training and employment programming passes through the city, which is responsible for ensuring funding is properly expended.
According to the charter agreement in place when Monterosso was hired, the Berkshire County Regional Employment Board — appointed by the mayor and made up of 30 local leaders from the business, labor, education and human services sectors — is in charge of overseeing and developing responsive center workforce development and related programming, which receives annual federal and state grant funding.
Asked for a response to the MCAD decision, Heather Boulger, executive director of Berkshire County Regional Employment Board, said, last week. "As you know, the BCREB charters BerkshireWorks but does not have anything to do with [its] personnel issues."
She said BCREB is not represented by an attorney in the matter and has not been involved in the MCAD process.
Mayor Linda M. Tyer, who was elected in November 2015 and took office the following January, said of the MCAD decision that "because it is such a sensitive legal issue, I cannot comment. It wouldn't be appropriate of me to comment."
Meanwhile, Benjamin Steffans, one of two attorneys with Cohen Kinne Valicenti Cook of Pittsfield representing BerkshireWorks in the complaint, said it is the firm's policy not comment on pending litigation.
Listed as representing the city in the matter are Hunter Keil and Patricia Rapinchuk, of Robinson Donovan of Springfield. The attorneys did not return messages last week seeking comment.
Monterosso, 49 at the time of the alleged incidents, did not file a response to the MCAD complaint, Perkins said. In 2014, Monterosso was a Pittsfield native with prior workforce development experience in Kentucky and had worked earlier in West Virginia.
Several times in the seven-page MCAD investigation report it is stated that while probable cause was found, the final determination should be left to a fact-finder to determine, if no settlement is reached. Perkins said the fact-finder is the hearing commissioner.
"I'm not sure who that commissioner will ultimately be," she said in an email. "It may be different from the one we have now (Williamson). And yes, whoever the commissioner is ultimately decides whether there is a preponderance of evidence to conclude that Jodi Steele experienced sexual harassment, retaliation and constructive discharge."
The MCAD probable cause finding sent to the parties also gives notice of a meeting scheduled in October to begin work toward a conciliation agreement and settlement.
Chairwoman Williamson notes that the commission "is charged by statute to try to enforce compliance with the commonwealth's anti-discrimination laws without resort to a public hearing. To this end, parties and counsel are required to attend a conciliation conference at the commission's office."
She said that the "complainant's counsel should send a written proposal of settlement to respondent's counsel not less than 10 days before the scheduled meeting. We also require that parties hold preliminary settlement discussions at least five days before the conciliation date."
The issues also could be taken or appealed to Superior Court.
Information on the MCAD complaint process can be found at www.mass.gov/mcad/filing-complaint
Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.
Complaint excerpts ...
The following allegations are included in a report describing alleged sexual harassment by former BerkshireWorks Executive Director William Monterosso:
• On Jan. 21, 2014, [Monterosso] became executive director of [BerkshireWorks]. That day respondent Monterosso asked [Steele] to show him the conference room where a seminar was to be held. [Steele] agreed and began walking with him to the conference room. As they walked, [Monterosso] grabbed [Steele's] hip and pulled her body to his. She pulled away. When the two arrived at the conference room, he stroked the middle of [Steele's] back, around her waistline slowly, and said, 'Thanks, honey.'"
• On Feb. 14, 2014, [Monterosso] again touched [Steele's] back and squeezed her neck. She told Program Operations Manager [Melanie] Gelaznik and Human Resources Director [Daniel] Collins, who asked her if she wanted to move forward with an investigation. [Steele] said no because she was afraid [Monterosso] may fire her."
• After a period when Monterosso was out of the office much of the time at meetings, on March 21, 2014, "[Steele] had to crawl on her hands and knees under [Monterosso's] desk to unplug his computer. Someone else came in while she was under his desk, and [Monterosso] said, 'That's her favorite position.' This upset [Steele] greatly, and she left to vomit in the bathroom."
• "On April 3, 2014, [Monterosso] held a staff meeting to discuss seminars being conducted for employees laid off by North Adams Regional Hospital. During the meeting, he sat next to [Steele] and caressed her hand. She removed her hand, moved her body a few inches and crossed her arms."
• Afterward, "Ms. Gelaznik called [Steele] into her office because she witnessed what [Monterosso] did to her hand. [Steele] told her [Monterosso] also called her back after that meeting and invited her to ride his motorcycle. Ms. Gelaznik said she would notify Mr. Collins."
• "On April 4, 2014, respondent BerkshireWorks held a seminar for the North Adams Regional Hospital employees, most of whom were women. Respondent BerkshireWorks staff handed out rulers with their logo on them to attendees, and [Monterosso] said everyone should 'spank their neighbor.' Food, including sandwiches from Boston Seafood, were also served at the seminar. [Monterosso] made a lewd comment about the smell of fish. He also made a comment about having hot flashes and said it 'must be all the estrogen in the room.' "
• After she had met April 8 with personnel officials at Pittsfield City Hall investigating complaints against Monterosso, Steele said she was told that Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi (the official who appointed Monterosso) "had told him not to return while the investigation was ongoing nor speak to [Steele]. Nonetheless, [Monterosso] returned to work the following morning. He called [Steele] into his office and told her that someone filed a sexual harassment charge against him, and if that was her, she had every right to, but 'human touch is [my] way of saying thank you, that I appreciate everything [you] do' He also claimed that he was 'not doing anything in a perverted way' and the charges were 'bull----.' When she came out of [Monterosso's] office, Mr. Collins approached her and she told him what happened before going back to her desk. A few minutes later, [Monterosso] came out and shouted, 'Did you f---ing tell them I was talking to you? Now I have to f---ing leave.' He then left the office."
• "After this incident, [Steele] feared for her safety at work. She was very afraid [Monterosso] would return and do something violent, because he knew about the employees' meeting times and location, was very angry, and had talked about having weapons. In the following weeks, [Monterosso] drove by the office several times wearing a baseball cap pulled down low over his forehead."
Jodi Steele began work at BerkshireWorks in 2007. She was promoted three times and served as office manager in early 2014. She filed her complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination in September 2014. MCAD investigators last month issued a finding of probable cause.