A former Cumberland County Department of Public Health employee alleges in a lawsuit that her boss started sexually harrasing her shortly after she was promoted to administrative assistant in 2016.
Marlene Harris said the department’s then deputy director, Rodney Jenkins, would ask about her husband, buy her gifts and once sent her a shirtless picture of himself.
“His comments and actions made the victim reasonably believe that Jenkins was attempting to have a romantic and/or sexual relationship with her,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed last May in Cumberland County Superior Court. A jury trial is set for April 25 unless the case is settled by mediation next month.
Jenkins is now director of the Durham County Department of Public Health. Durham County declined to comment, saying it is not a part of the lawsuit. Cumberland County also declined to comment, citing the active lawsuit that names the county’s health department as the defendant.
Harris, who is 40 and now living in northern California, spoke to CityView TODAY on Friday.
“My ultimate goal is to effectuate change within the community and, sincerely, I really do hope that it creates a conversation and space for others to come forward with their own experiences,” she said.
Harris said her personal experience with sexual harassment began after May 2, 2016, when she was promoted to an administrative position in the health department’s executive management suite working directly for Jenkins.
The lawsuit says that on Feb. 10, 2017, Harris told then Health Director Buck Wilson that Jenkins had been sexually harassing her.
About a week later, Wilson told Harris that she would start reporting directly to him and not to Jenkins, the lawsuit says.
But by July of that year, the lawsuit says, Harris was told to start reporting to an administrative assistant, which amounted to a substantial reduction in her job responsibilities. A month later, Harris filed a sexual harassment complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
According to the lawsuit, Harris was told months after filing the EEOC complaint that she would no longer have an office and was instead assigned to work at a receptionist’s desk. The lawsuit says the change also meant she could no longer accrue compensatory time, and she lost status with her co-workers.
During much of this time, Wilson had been embroiled in his own controversy. Investigators were looking into allegations that the health department had failed to sufficiently notify - or not notify at all - 160 women about their abnormal cervical cancer exams.
Wilson resigned on Aug. 4, 2017, citing personal reasons. Jenkins was named the interim director shortly afterward. Jenkins held the position for about six months, when Assistant County Manager Duane Holder took over. At the time, the county said Jenkins had asked to return to his old job as deputy director.
In the phone interview, Harris said she thinks that the retaliation that happened to her made other workers fear coming forward with their own complaints.
“When I experienced harassment and then reported it and then experienced retaliation, I think that sends a chilling message throughout the entire department,” Harris said. “So as far as the culture, I think there is an actual culture of fear, you know, because your livelihood is on the line, and you take a huge risk when you see that other people have gone through it and have been retaliated against.”
Durham County hires Jenkins
The Durham County Department of Health hired Jenkins as its director in January 2020, about two and a half years after Harris filed her complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The EEOC investigated Harris’ complaint and gave her a right-to-sue letter. Harris’ lawyer, Charles Monteith of Raleigh, said the letter was issued after the EEOC found it could not conclude that unlawful discrimination and retaliation occurred.
Durham County hired Jenkins as its health director a month before the EEOC issued its letter. He resigned from Cumberland County’s health department shortly before going to work in Durham.
Harris said the matter in which cases of alleged sexual harassment are handled must change. She said she hopes her lawsuit helps do that.
“This is a matter of public interest because the same culture still exists at the (Cumberland County) department and possibly others across the state,” Harris said. “I’m speaking up because I don’t want my situation to happen to anyone else.”
Harris’ case is supported and funded by the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, an organization that provides legal and media support to people who allege to be victims of sexual discrimination. The fund is housed and administered by the nonprofit National Women's Law Center.
Greg Barnes is an investigative reporter for CityView TODAY. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a news tip? Email news@CityViewTODAY.com.