October 2019 Legal Report
A Minneapolis jury awarded Amy Krekelberg $585,000 in a suit against the city and two individual police officers—her coworkers—for a privacy breach of her personal information.
In 2013, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources informed Krekelberg that an employee abused his access to a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) database to access thousands of state residents’ records.
Most of those affected were women, who were notified of the breach because the data is protected by the U.S. Driver’s Privacy Protection Act. And, unique among U.S. states, Minnesota maintains a record of DMV database searches and allows its citizens to request information related to their files and a list of who accessed their information.
Krekelberg initiated an audit of her own records and found that individuals had accessed hers almost 1,000 times since 2003. These records included personal information, like her home address, weight, height, and identification photos.
Krekelberg, a member of the Minneapolis Police Department since 2012 and a former officer for the city’s Park and Recreation Board, later discovered that her colleagues had accessed her information in more than half of the instances.
Two of those colleagues, Matthew Olson and Heather Young, allegedly accessed Krekelberg’s records after she rejected their romantic advances.
Krekelberg sued the City of Minneapolis, Olson, Young, and various other Minnesota counties and cities for violating the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act in 2013, citing an invasion of her privacy and an abuse of power displayed by law enforcement personnel.
“These personnel, charged with protecting and serving the public, knowingly abused their positions of trust to invade the private life of Krekelberg, without her knowledge or consent, and without ever informing her of their activities,” court documents said. “They did so for personal reasons, for curiosity, for sexual interest, for physical attraction, for animus toward female police officers, and out of jealousy of successful female officers.”
The jury ordered Olson and Young to pay $150,000 each as punishment for their conduct and as a deterrent against “similar violations in the future,” according to court documents.
Following the jury’s verdict, the Minneapolis Police Department made a policy change that requires officers to file a valid reason for running a DMV records search. According to the city’s attorney, certain city employees, such as police officers, were previously encouraged to become familiar with the database by searching for friends and family members. (Krekelberg v. Anoka County et al, U.S. District Court for District of Minnesota, No. 0:13-cv-03562-DWF, 2019)
Blackwater Protection & Detective Agency, LLC, agreed to pay $35,000 to settle charges that its CEO sexually harassed a female employee.
Blackwater CEO and owner Asdel Vazquez allegedly harassed a new female employee during her one week of employment with “charged comments,” including asking her to engage in sexual acts with him; asking if she was gay; petting her hair at work; and repeatedly calling her at home, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) said.
After the employee told Vazquez she would not meet him outside of work and wanted to keep things professional, he retaliated by firing her, according to the lawsuit.
On top of the financial component, as part of the settlement agreement the EEOC said Blackwater and its successor companies will adopt new measures and policies to combat a “sexually charged work environment” that Vazquez fostered.
Blackwater and its successor companies will also hire and retain an independent equal opportunity consultant who will be responsible for receiving and investigating future sexual harassment complaints at the company. The consultant will also set up a sexual harassment policy specifically addressing the harassment detailed in the lawsuit and a hotline to anonymously report incidents of harassment.
Additionally, Blackwater supervisors and employees will receive in-person training on sexual harassment policies and laws; Vazquez will receive one-on-one training. (EEOC v. Blackwater Protection & Detective Agency et al., U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, No. 1:18-cv-23938-DPG, 2019)
U.S President Donald Trump signed legislation into law that requires public buildings with public restrooms to also provide a separate lactation room for breastfeeding mothers.
The Fairness for Breastfeeding Mothers Act of 2019 (P.L. 116-30) requires facilities to establish a lactation room with a chair, a working surface, and an electrical outlet—if the building is wired for electricity. The room must also be shielded from public view and free from intrusion.
Public buildings that do not provide lactation rooms for employees, do not have areas that can be repurposed for breastfeeding or made sufficiently private, or do not have the resources to create a new lactation room are exempt from the law.
U.S. Senators introduced legislation supporting President Trump’s efforts to corral Huawei’s access to U.S.-based companies.
The Defending America’s 5G Future Act (S. 2118) would prohibit removing the Chinese-owned telecom company from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Entity List. Inclusion on the list bars the company from buying goods from U.S. companies without congressional approval.
The bill supports an executive order that Trump signed in May, which declared a national emergency campaign to protect U.S. companies’ computer systems from foreign enemies. The order did not specifically name Huawei or other companies, but the Trump administration previously expressed concerns about Huawei products, including allegations that these goods could be used by Chinese intelligence agents who pose a security threat.
The bill was introduced by U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) and has seven bipartisan cosponsors. It was sent to the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs for consideration. A similar bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives with bipartisan support.
Amending the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, President Trump signed legislation increasing support for police officer family services, stress reduction, and suicide prevention.
The law, Supporting and Treating Officers in Crisis Act of 2019 (P.L. 116-32), introduced by Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO), reforms and expands grant funding for law enforcement family-support services, allowing for up to $7.5 million per fiscal year from 2020 to 2024.
The law reauthorized lapsed funding for family-support grants for U.S. state and local law enforcement agencies. Authorization for the grant program expired in 2000.
In a shift from previous years, grant programs approved by Congress can now also use the funding to support officers with suicide prevention efforts, mental health screenings, and training on how to identify at-risk individuals.
The Philippines outlawed catcalling, wolf-whistling, and other forms of sexual harassment in public places, including streets, workplaces, recreational areas, and public vehicles.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte signed the Safe Spaces Act into law in April, but it was not announced until July. Anyone charged with harassment—including groping, stalking, flashing, leering, unwanted exposure, or verbal sexual abuse—could receive up to six months in jail, plus a fine of up to 500,000 pesos, or approximately $9,750, according to the BBC.
Businesses open to the public, such as restaurants, are required to post signs about the new law, as well as a telephone hotline number to report instances of harassment.
The new law amends a prior measure that defined sexual harassment as only incidents involving a superior and his or her subordinates.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) proposed new regulations for part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which would significantly alter discrimination rules in certain health programs based on gender identity, gender expression, and transgender status.
The new regulations would include prohibitions based on race, color, national origin, sex, age, and disability; however, they would no longer require health programs and activities to treat persons consistent with their gender identity. The regulations would allow treatment to be denied based on transgender status, and insurers could refuse treatment for transgender or transition-related procedures.
Revisions to the ACA’s Section 1557 would effectively abandon the interpretation that certain actions or reactions to persons based on gender identity, gender expression, and transgender condition would not be considered discrimination based on sex.
According to the HHS, the department “could apply Congress’s words using their plain meaning when they were written, instead of attempting to redefine sex discrimination to include gender identity.”
The department also said that the changes would result in savings of approximately $3.6 billion “in unnecessary regulatory costs over five years.” Most of these costs are generated by “paperwork burdens,” especially notices, related to the current rule.
Elsewhere in the Courts
Former Interpol chief Meng Hongwei pled guilty to accepting roughly $2 million in bribes. Meng, who was living in France, disappeared in September 2018 during a visit to China. He was later formally arrested, after his wife reported him missing, as part of a corruption investigation. During a July 2019 hearing in China’s Tianjin No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court, Meng admitted to the crimes, which included an extravagant lifestyle, “serious violations of discipline,” and directing promotions for his wife, according to the state-owned People’s Daily. Meng, the first Chinese citizen to head Interpol, previously held positions within the Communist Party. The country’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection said he was expelled from the party and deprived of all government ranks, which included vice-minister of public security.
A U.S. federal jury convicted Mustafa al-Imam for his role in the 11 September 2012 terrorist attack on U.S. government facilities in Benghazi, Libya. Al-Imam was found guilty of conspiring to provide material support and resources to terrorists, maliciously destroying and injuring a dwelling, and placing lives in jeopardy. The jury did not reach a verdict on 15 other charges against al-Imam, who faces a maximum prison sentence of 15 to 20 years.
The attack resulted in the deaths of four U.S. government employees, including an ambassador. (United States v. al-Imam, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, No. 2017-0213, 2019.)
A U.S. district court in Virginia sentenced James A. Fields, Jr., to life in prison for an August 2017 car attack at a Charlottesville, Virginia, rally. Fields, a self-identified neo-Nazi, previously pled guilty to 29 hate crimes, violations of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which occurred when he drove his vehicle into counter-protestors at the “Unite the Right Rally,” a two-day white supremacist rally. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, he targeted the individuals because of their actual and perceived race, religion, color, and national origin, killing one woman, Heather Heyer, and injuring more than 30 other people. Fields also admitted that he hoped to kill the other victims struck by his car. (United States v. Fields, U.S. District Court for the West District of Virginia, No. 3:18-cr-00011, 2019)