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Orange Beach spends $300K to settle anti-LGBTQ discrimination suits

Both lawsuits describe a hostile environment created by the former recreation director, and actions from the mayor and council that perpetuated the situation.

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The Orange Beach City Council voted last week to settle two lawsuits alleging anti-LGBTQ discrimination by former city employees at a total settlement cost of just under $300,000.

Combined, the lawsuits paint a picture of a pervasive anti-LGBTQ and sexually charged atmosphere within the Orange Beach Recreation Department primarily due to the actions of former recreation director Jonathan Langston and his wife Jessica.

The complaints also allege city officials including Mayor Tony Kennon, City Administrator Ken Grimes, City Councilwoman Annette Mitchell and others allowed the discriminatory atmosphere to be perpetuated.

Five former city employees were ultimately fired after Jonathan Langston allegedly told them “a cancer” needed to be “cut out” of the city’s theater program, and the city also refused to extend an athletic director’s doctor-mandated leave due to mental health issues stemming directly from the hostile work environment.

The city settled the lawsuit lodged by that former athletic director, Laura Davis, at a cost of $126,000 to taxpayers.

APR requested comment from the Orange Beach mayor’s office for this story, but did not receive a response before publishing time. This story will be updated with such a response if received. 

The settlement agreement with Davis includes standard language that it “is not intended to constitute any finding of fact” and that “defendant has consistently denied and continues to deny every allegation of wrongdoing by plaintiff.” Instead, the settlement claims the agreement was reached “for the sole purpose of avoiding the costs and inconvenience of litigation.”

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However, APR spoke with a source, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, who said they personally witnessed numerous of the allegations made in both suits.

“The mayor and one or more councilmen knew the truth of what was happening but allowed Langston to continue his discrimination tactics and sexually harass women working under him,” the source said. 

Both Morrisette and Davis described routine comments from Langston regarding their sexual orientation, sexual acts and homophobic language and comments.

“Langston engaged in inappropriate and offensive conduct toward Morrisette and/or in his presence including, but not limited to, inappropriate sexual comments and jokes, sharing intimate details of his sexual encounters and penis size, and intimate and sexual information regarding Langston’s wife, Mrs. Jessica Langston … Creative Director and Morrisette’s supervisor,” Morrisette’s complaint states.

Davis told APR that she faced sexual discrimination from the time of her hiring in 2012, and intensifying in the spring of 2020.

“I would run into (Langston) three or four times a week and every encounter included some type of sexual slur,” Davis said.

Davis’ complaint further describes the types of language she alleges Langston used openly and frequently.

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“Additionally, beginning in approximately 2018, Ms. Davis was regularly and repeatedly verbally assaulted and harassed by Jonathon Langston, who was first a co-worker and then became her supervisor in December 2020,” the complaint alleges. “He called her such offensive terms as, ‘Hey homo,’ ‘dyke,’ ‘butch,’ ‘lesbo,’ ‘pussy licker,’ and other derogatory names referencing  origination. He also frequently made comments to Ms. Davis about lesbian sex.

“As her interactions with Mr. Langston became more frequent in late 2020 and early 2021, so did the harassment, such that it pervaded her every interaction with him. Ms. Davis cannot recall a single encounter with Langston where he did not reference her sexual orientation. The harassment was severe, pervasive, and rendered Ms. Davis’s working environment hostile and abusive.”

Both Davis and Morrisette were under the Expect Excellence program, Davis in the athletic division, Morrisette in the arts. 

While both suits describe similar behavior from Langston, Davis said she never met Morrisette.

“I was not aware of the situation with Chase until the public was,” Davis said. “It was nauseating to read their complaint because there were so many similarities, especially in regards to Jonathan Langston.”

Discrimination in the theater program

For Kolo Wilkinson, the Expect Excellence Theater Program was finally a place her son could feel like he belonged in a city where more than 90 percent of the population is white

“This was his first time having a sense of belonging and they really helped him feel he wasn’t an outcast,” Wilkinson said. 

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And Wilkinson had just gotten involved herself, being cast as a singer in the theater’s planned production of “Footloose” in February 2021 alongside her son.

So it was a shock when she and other parents suddenly got an email that the show was off, citing delays in getting copyright licenses.

“We were about to start practicing and the rug was pulled out from under us and we had no idea why,” Wilkinson said. “I inquired to find out why and learned they had also been victims of discrimination.”

According to allegations in the 48-page lawsuit by Morrisette and colleagues Deann Milly and Lacy Ignacio McFadden, “Footloose” was actually canceled due to the termination of the three plaintiffs as well as two other city employees.

“On February 15, 2021, Milly, McFadden, Renea McCoy (“McCoy”) and Morrisette were

called to a meeting with Mrs. Langston and Langston. Langston informed the group there was a ‘cancer in the room’ that needed to be ‘cut out,’” the complaint states. “… Langston advised the group there were several ways to handle the ‘cancer’ including shutting down the whole program. Mrs. Langston and Langston then left the room and meeting, but left a recorder in the room which secretly recorded the conversations between the remaining meeting members present. The recording was later published on Facebook.”

During that meeting, Morrisette, Milly, McFadden, McCoy and Nancy Dickchute “began to discuss Langston’s threats and Milly, McFadden, Dickhute and McCoy all vowed their intention to have Morrisette’s ‘back’ and support him regardless of the outcome.”

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“Several hours after leaving the meeting, Milly received a text from Morrisette informing her of his termination,” the complaint states. “Shortly after receiving this message, Milly received a call from Langston and Pishna, Human Resource Director, informing her that her services with longer required,” including teaching positions with the Continued Excellence Adult Program, because the program was being ‘dismantled.’ Milly was later informed that McFadden, Dickhute, and McCoy were also fired for the same reasons.”

According to the complaint, just hours after the termination of the employees, emails went out to parents notifying them that “Footloose” was off. While plaintiffs allege they are told the program was being disbanded, they also allege parents were told just the opposite.

The complaint alleges that “Mayor Kennon and councilwoman Mitchell publicly gave false and pretextual reasons for Plaintiffs’ terminations which were calculated and intended to damage Plaintiffs’ good names and reputations and to humiliate them.”

“Mrs. Langston advised parents that Plaintiffs were terminated because of the ‘kind of

people that are around your children,’” the complaint states. “Mrs. Langston, Langston, Mayor Kennon, and Mitchell, City Council member, also advised students, parents and the community at large that the terminations were necessary for the ‘safety of the children.’

“Mayor Kennon published to parents and the community at large that the Milly, Morrisette, McFadden, McCoy, and Dickhute terminations were necessary to ‘cut out the cancer’ and ‘protect the children’ and promote a ‘family-friendly brand’ with ‘conservative ideals’ at OBA.”

The terminations came after months of back and forth between the Langstons and the targeted employees over programs including LGBTQ characters and themes or even interracial relationships.

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The suit alleges that performances of “Hairspray” and “Clue” were ultimately decided against because of LGBTQ characters or themes, with Jessica Langston accusing Morrisette in front of parents and students of having a “gay political agenda.”

In the discussion of Hairspray, the suit also alleges Mitchell and Jessica Langston “openly expressed concerns regarding interracial concepts in the play as well as concerns that a female character was historically cast with a male.”

According to the complaint, Jessica Langston actually originally suggested “Clue” as a play, but asked that that a gay character be reworked to be a “psychopath” or “criminally insane” instead of gay to make the show more family-friendly.

When theater program leaders refused to rework the gay character, Langston ordered the production to be foregone, the compliant states.

The complaint says Jessica Langston also referred to one person’s audition as “faggoty.”

The city settled this suit at a cost of $173,333.

A toxic atmosphere in athletics

Early in Laura Davis’ employment, City Administrator Ken Grimes allegedly told her “that he would not have hired her if he had known she was gay” and that he did not think “community parents would approve of her because she is gay.”

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Davis told APR that kind of feeling permeated the atmosphere throughout her career in Orange Beach, especially after Jonathan Langston became her supervisor.

“It was kind of everyone knew it and everyone went with it,” Davis said. “That’s just kind of the way it was for 10 years.”

Davis also alleged the city discriminated against her by allowing straight white male colleagues to use city facilities to give private sports lessons, but repeatedly denying her requests to do so.

When Davis complained about the discrimination to city attorney Wanda Cochran, she alleges Grimes reprimanded her, saying “how dare she complain” and warned her to “never bring it up again.” According to the complaint, Kennon denied her the opportunity to even pay for use of the space, which is open to other citizens.

The lawsuit also alleges pay disparities.

“When the City conducted a salary study in approximately August 2020, Ms. Davis’s salary was found to be well below the minimum indicated for individuals with her level of responsibility,” the complaint states. “Via written request in October 2020, she requested that her salary be raised to a range within the norm for someone with her level of experience and responsibility. She was denied. In contrast, in the wake of this salary study, in January 2021, Langston was given a new title and a considerable raise.”

By December 2020, Grimes informed Davis she would actually be demoted instead and would fall under the supervision of Jonathan Langston.

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The complaint alleges that Langston told her in a meeting discussing the structural shift that “they’ve made it clear they don’t want you here; I don’t know if it’s because you’re a woman or if it’s because you’re gay,” or words to that effect.

The situation ultimately became so toxic that Davis had to seek leave and therapy.

“The intolerably hostile work environment to which Ms. Davis was being subjected was taking a considerable toll on Ms. Davis’s mental health,” the complaint states. “Ms. Davis was suffering from major depressive disorder, panic disorder, adjustment disorder, and insomnia. Therefore, at the recommendation of her health care provider, she began FMLA leave as of April 1, 2021.”

Now employed by the City of Gulf Shores, Davis said the atmosphere is drastically different despite being just a short drive down the coast.

“There are a lot of good people in Orange Beach and it is unfortunate the leadership is the way it is,” Davis said, “I’m extremely grateful to be employed at Gulf Shores, where they value me as an employee and human being— it’s something very different.”

Jacob Holmes is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected]

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