NOAA Scientist Sues Supervisor Over Alleged Sexual Harassment, Retribution

NOAA Scientist Sues Supervisor Over Alleged Sexual Harassment, Retribution
A scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is suing a divisional leader at the Boulder-based federal agency, alleging that he initiated a sexual relationship with her and then retaliated when she broke off the affair.

The timeline in the lawsuit begins in late 2013. In Lidia Cucurull's lawsuit, she characterizes it as a "difficult time"; she'd had a miscarriage, was caring for a young child, and her marriage was suffering. At the time, she was working for the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Studies, a collaborative effort of NOAA and the University of Colorado Boulder that explores weather and climate. Her federal supervisor was Kevin Kelleher, director of NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory's Global Systems Division.

"Mr. Kelleher was aware of some of the challenges that she was facing and used his position of authority to express an interest in her," alleges the lawsuit, filed in federal court on June 8.

According to the suit, Kelleher, who declined to comment for this story, would regularly stop by Cucurull's office, shut the door and sit close to her, asking about her personal life; they became intimate in February 2014. "A few days after this encounter Mr. Kelleher insisted that they become involved on a regular basis," the suit alleges. "Ms. Cucurull was ambivalent, but because he was her supervisor, she had difficulty telling him no."

Kelleher, who was also married, tried to persuade Cucurull to leave her husband, "falsely [accusing] her husband of hiding money from her and being dangerous," according to the suit.

Cucurull soon received an anonymous e-mail from a co-worker warning that if her relationship with Kelleher continued, her career would suffer; still, the affair continued, and in early 2015 Cucurull and her husband separated. She tried to end her relationship with Kelleher, but "each time he became more insistent that it continue, buying her gifts, cards, and sending her affectionate text messages, handwritten notes and emails."

In August 2015, Cucurull became a federal employee and Kelleher became her direct supervisor. She reconciled with her husband later that year.

In an attempt to end their relationship once and for all, in February 2016 Cucurull sent Kelleher a text message that read: "I don't think you are the kind of man I can be happy with. I am sure you will not have any trouble finding someone else... ." But Kelleher insisted on continuing the relationship, inviting himself to her home that  March and "claiming that he needed to talk to her," the suit claims. "She again felt that her job was in jeopardy if they did not sleep together," which they did that evening. A few days later, she told him to "stop sexually harassing her."

But according to the suit, Kelleher's unwanted advances, including texts and handwritten messages, continued throughout the year. And, "in addition to unwanted attention, over the course of 2016, it became clear that Mr. Kelleher was subjecting Dr. Cucurull to adverse treatment because she had ended their relationship and opposed his continued harassment," the lawsuit claims. "In March 2016, he accused her of a conflict of interest. In June 2016, he interfered with work-related negotiations she was conducting. And he regularly excluded her from management meetings."

"It's really taken a toll; she's been diagnosed with PTSD because of all the ongoing retaliation."

tweet this
In October, after again telling Kelleher to "stop sexually harassing her, his retaliation against her intensified," the suit continues. After he tried to force her to keep a "toxic" employee, Cucurull filed a formal grievance against Kelleher on November 10, 2016. He continued to exclude her from meetings, and in December allegedly tried to delay the review process for a paper she had submitted for peer review.

In late 2016 and early 2017, Cucurull sought to transfer to another lab to "escape from Mr. Kelleher." But in early 2017, the suit says, "in an attempt to keep controlling her, he wrote a memo requesting that he retain supervisory authority over her by being allowed to give input into her performance appraisal. He sought this supervisor authority over her even though the transfer would mean that she no longer officially [reported] to him."

She formally complained to human resources on February 14, 2017, accusing Kelleher of sexual harassment and retaliation. Cucurull was then transferred to a lab in Miami, though she was to remain in charge of a group of scientists she formed in Boulder. The lawsuit alleges that Kelleher threatened her job soon after, took a project away from her, and falsely accused her of improperly using funds.

She filed a formal Equal Employment Opportunity complaint in May 2017.

Although Cucurull had been transferred to Miami, her "duty station remained Boulder," where she had lived for a number of years. In May 2017, she found out that her duty station had also been transferred to Miami; she requested that her duty station be changed to Boulder.

In December 2017, Cucurull learned that someone had filed a complaint against her through the Department of Commerce's Office of Inspector General, which her lawsuit alleges came from Kelleher "or one of his allies in retaliation for her reporting him for sexual harassment." She decided to send an open letter to her employees in mid-December, detailing the actions that had been taken against her. Still, during a January trip to Austin for a conference, Kelleher allegedly "engaged in stalking behavior toward Ms. Cucurull by: loitering near her, staring menacingly at her, following her around the airport, and following her around the airport's parking lot."

For months, NOAA "took no action on my request to have my duty station changed to Boulder," which Cucurull's suit claims was a retaliatory action. Finally, after she'd filed that suit, her request to have her duty station changed was denied on June 27.

On Monday, August 20, a spokesman in Kelleher's division said that the agency doesn't comment on active litigation. Cucurull declined to comment for this story but directed questions to her attorney, Paul Maxon.

"It's been very difficult for her," Maxon says. "She's trying to do this extremely difficult job of working as a scientist and overseeing a team of scientists, and at every turn, NOAA has fought her and attempted to make her life more difficult. It's really taken a toll; she's been diagnosed with PTSD because of all the ongoing retaliation."

The lawsuit is asking for an unspecified amount of compensation for emotional pain and suffering and attorneys' fees. Federal law caps the maximum that can be awarded for emotional distress at $300,000.

"She's going to fight it," Maxon says. "She's not going to be forced out. She just refuses to be intimidated by these people."
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ana Campbell has been Westword's managing editor since 2016. She has worked at magazines and newspapers around the country, picking up a few awards along the way for her writing and editing. She grew up in south Texas.
Contact: Ana Campbell