Ex-Gatlinburg employee claims harassment, bias in federal lawsuit

George Hawkins, in the white shirt,
being interviewed.
A federal lawsuit filed by a former city employee claims she was wrongfully fired for speaking up about sexual harassment at the workplace, and that she also suffered age and racial discrimination.

Sandra Donohoo was 50 when she filed the lawsuit last year; she is African-American. She claims she was fired from her position in the department of tourism Oct. 26, 2011, after she complained about harassment and discrimination by George Hawkins, who at the time was special events manager for the Gatlinburg Department of Tourism.

The lawsuit claims “there was a severe and pervasive sexually discriminatory hostile work environment in the special events department.”

The city’s response denies the allegations without going into detail.

Hawkins’ filed response acknowledges he gave Donohoo what his attorney calls a “gag gift,” but claims she wasn’t bothered at the time.

“It is specifically denied that the plaintiff was offended, and it is specifically denied that this constituted sexual harassment.”

The complaint mentions Donohoo was treated differently from other employees — “terms of employment were not equal with employment terms for similarly situated employees under age 40 or who were Caucasian” — but does not give any specific example of incidents related to her age or race.

On one of her birthdays, according to the lawsuit, Hawkins gave her “an ice penis sculpture, gave it to her in the office, then left it in the office refrigerator/freezer for days. He even laughed and remarked that he had told his immediate supervisor about it.”

She claimed Hawkins at one point groped another female employee in front of her and regularly made sexual remarks in the office and during staff meetings.

Donohoo also claims she was harassed based on her age, gender and race.

After she complained, she said, she was transferred, suspended and demoted before eventually being fired. She’s seeking back pay, as well as up to $2.75 million in damages.

While Donohoo claims Hawkins was her direct supervisor, his response indicates he was not in charge of other employees in the department.

Hawkins denies groping the other employee or making sexual remarks.

Hawkins, who once served as mayor on the Gatlinburg City Commission, now works for the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. He declined to comment on the lawsuit when contacted on Friday. He is represented in the lawsuit by Cookeville attorney Daniel Rader III.

The city is represented by Knoxville attorney Nathan Rowell, who declined to comment on the matter.

Knoxville attorney George Underwood is representing Donohoo; he declined to comment but said the case appears to be set for trial June 18.

n jfarrell@themountainpress.com