While she pursued a wrongful-termination lawsuit against Jefferson Parish, emergency preparedness expert Heather Hilliard never stopped teaching a class as an adjunct professor in Tulane University’s Homeland Security Program.
But to make ends meet, Hilliard also had to take a job at a retail store in Houston, six hours away by car. She would stay at a friend’s place there until her days off, when she’d drive back to New Orleans, teach at Tulane, stay at another friend’s — and head back to Houston and her retail job.
With Jefferson Parish having agreed to settle her lawsuit on Wednesday, Hilliard hopes her days of couch-surfing are over.
While neither side will discuss the amount of money for which the case was settled due to a confidentiality clause, multiple sources have told The New Orleans Advocate it was for about $200,000.
What’s most important to Hilliard is that she no longer has to make unusual sacrifices to cover rent, utilities and food. She knows she can now afford to dedicate more time searching for employment in a field in which she has two master’s degrees.
“I don’t have to worry about temporary situations anymore,” Hilliard said Monday in a telephone interview. “And that’s a great burden lifted.”
Hilliard was Jefferson Parish’s chief administrative assistant for public safety from Dec. 13, 2010, to May 24, 2012. In court documents, she alleges that two months into her stint with the parish, the No. 3 official in parish government — Deputy Chief Operating Officer Richard Hart — started harassing her with offensive and vulgar sexual comments.
Among her claims: Hart suggested to co-workers that they should “see him in assless chaps,” and he referred to Hilliard as “a booty call” because Parish President John Young had phoned her after hours the previous night.
Hart also allegedly made hand gestures mimicking the act of masturbation to belittle the importance of a situation, and he told the office to participate in “Thong Thursdays” after some staff members wore pink bracelets to support a colleague battling breast cancer.
Hilliard complained to parish higher-ups about Hart for about nine months beginning in March 2011, according to her suit, in which she was represented by Jack E. “Bobby” Truitt.
Jefferson Parish had an outside firm investigate Hilliard’s claims, and it concluded Hart violated workplace policy on harassment. He resigned two days later.
Less than a month after that, Hilliard got her first employment evaluation from the parish. It was scathing. The parish fired her three months later.
In January 2013, Hilliard turned to federal court and sued the parish, Young and Hart, alleging discrimination, sexual harassment, a hostile workplace and unjust retaliation for complaining.
All of her claims were ultimately dismissed except for the retaliation one against the parish, and that’s what was settled last week. The trial had been scheduled to start Tuesday.
While the case was pending, Hilliard experienced some of her professional life’s darkest times.
She didn’t earn enough to sustain herself with the one class she taught at Tulane, and the only other work she could find for a time was seasonal jobs, such as researching and writing for a law firm on a temporary basis.
Throughout, she was moving in and out of the houses of friends who could spare space. “I was always thinking, ‘What’s next? What can I do?’ ” she said.
When she was in Houston one day visiting her best friend from high school, Hilliard walked into a retail store that had an opening. The business hired her and quickly promoted her to assistant manager after learning about her experience with budgets and inventories. She said she helped the store exceed its sales targets, which resulted in bonuses for her co-workers.
Although she had never anticipated working in retail, Hilliard said she remained positive and brought her skills to the job, even when it required commutes to and from New Orleans and Tulane on consecutive days.
“You can never lose hope and faith,” she said. “When bad things happen, you always have to have hope and faith that good things can happen.”