RALEIGH, N.C. (CN) - A credit union worker killed himself after it was found he had put a secret camera in a room where co-workers expressed breast milk, and the credit union exacerbated two women's PTSD by demanding they stop acting like victims, the women claim in court.
Mary John Caldwell and Dawn Liles sued the North Carolina State Employees' Credit Union, in Wake County Court.
Both women worked in the credit union's Internet Service department, and gave birth in 2010.
The births came just months after circulation of a memo informing supervisors that under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act the company had to provide a private place other than a bathroom where mothers could express breast milk for their newborns.
In response, the executive in charge of the plaintiffs' department had a recording studio on the premises set aside and directed the vice president of Internet Services, Kai Cheng, to install blinds on the glass door of the studio and set up a schedule for the room's use.
Caldwell and Liles say they used the room for its intended purpose after returning from maternity leave.
Then: "On or about January 25, 2011, plaintiff Caldwell noticed a small, apparently electronic, device wedged within the cushions of a chair in the nursing room. She briefly inspected the device, but did not know what it was," according to the complaint.
Caldwell says the next day she went to use the room about 30 minutes earlier than usual, and was surprised to find Kai Cheng in the room. She says she grew suspicious when he said he was working on "something relating to voice response."
When she asked about the suspicious device she'd found, Caldwell says, Cheng denied knowledge of it, but took it from her and put it in a desk drawer.
"That same day, plaintiff Caldwell took plaintiff Liles into the nursing room to show her the device that Cheng had placed in the drawer," the complaint states.
They say they took the device and showed it to co-workers, who had no idea what it was, but said they'd noticed Cheng spending an unusual amount of time around the "Mother's Room."
"That night, plaintiff Caldwell took the device home with her, and in searching the Internet, discovered that the device appeared to be a keychain camera," the complaint states.
With help from her husband, Caldwell says, she downloaded several images and a video from the device: it had captured Caldwell and Cheng's conversation and recorded Cheng placing the camera in the chair cushions.
Caldwell called Liles to tell her she believed they'd been photographed expressing breast milk. Both women say they immediately experienced tremendous anxiety about what had happened. Caldwell claims she feared that Cheng would realize she took the camera and come after her.
On Jan. 27, 2011, the two women met with the senior vice president of the credit union's HR department.
"Both women were extremely anxious being in the same building as Cheng," they say in the lawsuit. "They were worried what he might do to them, and discussed with each other their concern that he might become violent."
Eventually, the Raleigh Police Department was called and after questioning, Cheng admitted the camera was his and that he had recorded women, including the plaintiffs, expressing breast milk, according to the complaint.
Cheng was escorted to his home, where officers collected computers, laptops, cell phones, speakers, and another concealable camera. As they did, Cheng shot himself in the head with a handgun. He died two days later.
Caldwell and Liles says that upon returning to work they were told to attend a group therapy session, but it was cut short because co-workers needed to meet with the therapist about Cheng's death.
"Plaintiffs were then told that they needed to go back to their department, which they were told to do because it would encourage the other employees to 'feel better' about the situation.
"As plaintiffs entered the department, the stress and anxiety caught up to them. They felt humiliated, targeted, and alone. They both began to cry. Plaintiff Liles had a panic attack and had to leave the room within minutes of walking into the department," they say.
Caldwell and Liles say they intended to meet again with the therapist, but were told to meet with human resources, where they were told they needed to "get back to normal" and the sooner they came to grips with the situation, the better.
"Both women felt unsupported and alone. They were receiving emails from the company regarding support for Cheng and his family, while the victimization of Caldwell and Liles was swept under the rug," they say.
"Plaintiffs were shocked that they were expected to immediately resume work as though nothing had happened."
Both women say they found it difficult to eat, sleep, concentrate or function normally. Liles also found it difficult to use the "Nursing Mother's Room," and could only do so when accompanied by Caldwell or another woman.
After a few weeks, the women's supervisor, who initially allowed the women to go to the room together, said the practice had to stop. She asked to speak Liles in a conference room where they were met by Sue Douglas, a senior vice president of the credit union.
"Douglas told plaintiff Liles that 'everybody' at the Credit Union was talking about her," the complaint states. "She further stated that Liles was 'begging for attention.'"
Liles claims that despite their previous conversations about the situation, Walters said she had no idea Liles was suffering from panic attacks. Liles claims Douglas ordered her to stop taking other employees to the nursing room with her.
"Douglas affirmed Walters' order and told plaintiff Liles she was 'acting like a victim' and that she was just 'begging for attention,'" the complaint states.
Liles says she was devastated, and resorted to expressing her breast milk in the back seat of her car, and continued to do so after she had a second child in 2013.
Both women say because of the personal violation by Cheng and the actions of their supervisors, they have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and are undergoing extensive counseling.
They seek compensatory and punitive damages for invasion of privacy and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
They are represented by J. Michael Genest, with the Taibi Kornbluth Law Group, of in Durham.