Suit alleges ex-Metroparks chief sexually harassed worker

A former employee of the Huron-Clinton Metroparks has sued the park system and former executive director George Phifer, alleging he sexually harassed her.

Carla M. McAfee filed the lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court in Detroit, alleging she was "subjected to unwelcome sexual conduct or communication from Phifer, including but not limited to physical touching, comments, phone calls, and requests for private lunches."

George Phifer.

In one alleged incident, McAfee said on her first day at work as a multimedia graphics design specialist she was called into Phifer's office Feb. 29, 2016, given a raise and told that he wanted to "see if she was management material "

McAfee said a few weeks later, McAfee claims Phifer called her into his office to talk about what she was wearing: a black dress and blazer. Phifer allegedly said that he liked her outfit and made an “OK” sign with his hands.

"His comment made (McAfee) uncomfortable," according to the lawsuit.

McAfee also claims that Phifer would lock the door to his office when he asked her to meet with him.

"Plaintiff was very uncomfortable during this meeting," according to the lawsuit. 

McAfee said Phifer asked her to lunch in April 2016 and requested that she leave 15 minutes after him for the lunch appointment "so no one would know they were having lunch together."

At the lunch, according to McAfee's lawsuit, Phifer was trying to "make a pass at her" but abruptly left her at the restaurant when she began talking about her husband and her church, "stopping any inference" that she was interested in a relationship with him.

Two months after being removed from probation, McAfee alleges Phifer tried to touch her arm and back during an event at Stony Creek Metropark.

"McAfee was concerned that Phifer would again try to sexually harass her, and she was worried that he wanted sexual favors in exchange for taking (her) off probation," according to the lawsuit.

McAfee said she was promoted to multimedia design supervisor April 7, 2016. She said Phifer extended her probationary period for another year, allegedly because she came in late Oct. 27, 2016, gave "too much" feedback to staff and had not taken an even amount of notes on all staff members of the department.

Nine months later, according to the lawsuit, McAfee was informed that her position had been "demoted." In October 2017, McAfee informed the officials at Huron-Clinton Metroparks that she was going to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with a complaint.

On June 14, 2018, McAfee was placed on administrative leave for 14 days, according to the lawsuit. McAfee said when she attempted to return to work at the end of her leave, she was told she would have to see the company psychologist.

After a series of extensions of her administrative leave, McAfee requested a severance package on Sept. 7, 2018, according to the suit.

Efforts to reach Phifer were unsuccessful. The attorney for McAfee, Jeanne V. Barron, said Phifer had not been served with the lawsuit as of Monday. He also had no attorney of record, she said. 

Amy McMillan, director of the park system, said she could not comment on pending litigation.

Phifer resigned from the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority in August 2017, nearly two months after being placed on paid administrative leave as part of an internal probe. Phifer had led the parks system since 2015; before that, he was hired as the chief of police in 2008.

 The Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority, which has an annual budget of $62 million, has more than 200 full-time employees and more than 800 part-time workers. The authority oversees 13 public parks which encompass over 25,000 acres throughout southeast Michigan. More than 8 million people visit the parks every year.

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