Lawsuit: Harassment, smear campaign caused city employee’s firing

A former city of Marathon department head filed a federal lawsuit against her old employer claiming harassment at City Hall and a smear campaign that resulted in her firing in 2015.

Zully Hemeyer, former director of the Utilities Department, wants her job back, back pay, benefits, attorneys fees, punitive damages and the city and its employees to not violate her civil rights. She filed the federal lawsuit alleging her rights were violated under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The case was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Key West.

Hemeyer oversaw the Utilities Department from September 2009 until she was fired in July 2015. Over the course of her employment, Hemeyer says the city “failed to ensure she had a work environment free from discrimination based on her sex, race, color and national origin.”

Furthermore, she alleges city staff used the media, including the Keynoter, for a smear campaign that led to her being fired.

In the 100-page lawsuit are copies of emails between Hemeyer and Public Works Director Carlos Solis, from whom Hemeyer says she received “unprofessional, abusive and many times just plain humiliating” harassment.

“Mr. Solis’ behavior affects interdepartmental cooperation and I am seeking your counsel and assistance to curb the abusive behavior,” Hemeyer wrote to Mike Puto, then city manager, in 2014.

There was also communication from Solis to Puto that Hemeyer had “deliberately provided misinformation and false statements” about a water project involving their departments in January 2015.

“The tone in the email is derogatory and confrontational,” Hemeyer wrote to Puto about the water project email. “This conduct is seriously affecting my working environment at City Hall.”

Turmoil among staff would follow.

Utilities Integration Specialist Brian Zirkelbach was fired in March 2015 for allegedly violating the Sunshine Law by creating something called mthutil.org that apparently was used to share documents. Utilities staffer Michael Gebhardt resigned April 1 that year. Erin Arnett, a part-time information technology assistant, took a leave of absence and Puto announced his resignation in April. He stayed on until Chuck Lindsey replaced him at the end of the year.

In the lawsuit, Hemeyer says she was left in the dark about a complaint filed against her by Gebhardt. She found out about it in the April 4, 2015, from the Keynoter, the lawsuit says.

A week later while she was celebrating her child’s birthday, she received a phone call from the Keynoter about what appeared to be her apparent termination. That information was in an unsigned letter on city letterhead. The suit says word of her termination came as a “complete surprise.” An online story about it was published that day and a follow-up story was published in print days later.

In June, Hemeyer was put on six months probation after being accused of purchasing computer equipment in February without consulting the city’s IT department, purchases she said were approved by Puto. Articles were published in the Keynoter about Hemeyer’s probation, in which she claimed Puto had signed off on the equipment.

A month later, a story about complaints filed by Solis and Arnett was published in the Keynoter and on July 31, 2015, Hemeyer was told her services were no longer needed at City Hall.

The lawsuit alleges discrimination due to her sex, race, color and/or national origin. She is of Peruvian descent.

Due to the alleged harassment, Hemeyer says she has lost income, fringe benefits and expenses in searching for a new job, as well as pain and suffering, mental anguish and emotional distress.

“In light of the nature of the allegations and the smear campaign the city of Marathon engaged in to disparage, discriminate and retaliate against my client using the media, including the Keynoter, as its vehicle, I think it’s inappropriate to comment about the case at this time,” said Hemeyer’s attorney, Dorothy Harden, of Islamorada.

Christopher Stearns, attorney for the city, did not respond to phone calls by press time. A hearing date has not been set, but U.S. District Court Judge Jose E. Martinez has been assigned to the case.

Katie Atkins: 305-440-3219