State equal rights officer: ‘Probable cause’ Milwaukee city attorney violated labor law

Former Assistant City Attorney Naomi Gehling alleged city attorney touched her inappropriately

Milwaukee City Attorney Tearman Spencer speaks to reporters in the City Hall rotunda
Milwaukee City Attorney Tearman Spencer speaks to reporters in the City Hall rotunda Oct. 29, 2021, in Milwaukee, Wis. Madeline Fox/WPR

A state equal rights officer found there’s “probable cause” to believe Milwaukee City Attorney Tearman Spencer violated labor laws after a former assistant city attorney reported he had touched her inappropriately.

A report from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, acquired by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, found former Assistant City Attorney Naomi Gehling reported Spencer had touched her inappropriately in 2020.

In her discrimination complaint with DWD, Gehling said she was hired as an assistant city attorney in August 2015. Spencer was elected on April 7, 2020, and began to serve his term on April 21, 2020.

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“When the new City Attorney, Tearman Spencer, took office in April 2020, it quickly became clear that female attorneys would not be given equal respect or opportunity under his leadership,” Gehling wrote in her complaint.

Gehling alleged during a meeting with Spencer on July 23, 2020, the city attorney “touched me in a way that made me uncomfortable and was inappropriate.”

Gehling said she reported the incident to a former deputy city attorney and to the Milwaukee Department of Employee Relations.

“After reporting this incident, I was ostracized and mistreated by the City Attorney,” Gehling said. “My input on various work was ignored by him and he otherwise created a toxic and uncomfortable environment for me.”

Gehling also alleged it was “common knowledge” that Spencer wanted to fire her, but she said she instead learned he had planned to transfer her to an “undesirable assignment.”

“The threat of termination and the inevitable reality of my transfer gave me no reasonable alternative other than to resign my position and seek other employment,” Gehling wrote in the complaint.

Gehling did resign on April 30, 2021, and now serves as the deputy director of the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission.

In her complaint, she alleged her resignation was a “constructive discharge.”

The U.S. Department of Labor said constructive discharge can occur when an employee’s resignation or retirement may be found to be not voluntary “because the employer has created a hostile or intolerable work environment or has applied other forms of pressure or coercion which forced the employee to quit or resign.”

In her initial determination filed in May, Wisconsin Equal Rights Officer Leticia Daley said she believes there did appear to be “constructive discharge” against Gehling.

“It appears that the Respondent (Spencer) may have more harshly scrutinized the Complainant’s (Gehling) performance after she opposed discrimination,” Daley wrote. “There is probable cause to believe that the Complainant’s (Gehling) sex and her report of unlawful discrimination were factors in her discharge.”

A hearing for the case is scheduled for April 23 and April 24, 2024, where Spencer could be found guilty of violating Wisconsin Fair Employment Law.

Spencer could not be immediately reached for comment. Attorney Daniel Finerty is representing the city in the case, and Peter Fox, who is representing Gehling, also did not respond to request for comment.

Spencer is up for reelection in the upcoming spring election. State Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, has already announced he’s running against Spencer.

This isn’t the first time Spencer has found himself in hot water. Shortly after he began his term, replacing Grant Langley, who held the position for 36 years, hoards of attorneys and staff members left the office, some alleging ethical violations and a “hostile work environment.”