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Stellar Dental pays $150,000 to 3 women in sexual harassment case

Stephanie Ruffins and Beth Henderson were fired in 2014 by Stellar Dental Care after complaining to their manager they were groped, bullied and humiliated by a male dental assistant at the Cheektowaga office, an Appellate Division panel of judges ruled.

Henderson testified before an administrative law judge that the co-worker grabbed her breasts while she was training Ruffins.

Dental hygienist Tami Martel quit Stellar Dental after her complaints about the same coworker were not resolved.

"It happened every single day," said Martel, 36. "He made me uncomfortable, uneasy. He looked right into you. If I was with a patient, he'd come in and stroke my hair or my face. It made my skin crawl."

This June, the State Supreme Court Appellate Division ordered Stellar Dental to pay more than $200,000 in compensatory damages, lost wages and civil fines for the sexual harassment and retaliatory firings of the women, which occurred nearly four years ago.

Stellar Dental recently paid $65,000 to Martel, $50,000 to Ruffins and $35,000 to Henderson in compensatory damages and lost wages.

The Appellate Division also upheld $60,000 in civil fines that the New York State Division of Human Rights had levied against Stellar Dental because of the women's complaints.

[PDF: Read the court decision]

The incidents happened shortly after Stellar opened its fifth dental care location at 3557 Union Road, said Frank Housh, the attorney who represented the women.

"These are three women who really suffered," said Housh. "Ms. Martel, clearly, was most affected. They didn't actually fire her, but she received constant verbal harassment to the point where she could not take it anymore."

Aaron Eady, 48, is the dental assistant identified by the women in court documents as the coworker who sexually harassed them.

Eady denied the accusations against him in testimony before Martin Erazo Jr., an administrative law judge. He still works at Stellar Dental, two employees confirmed. Eady did not respond to requests for comment from The Buffalo News.

Kevin Georger, compliance officer for Stellar Dental Management, provided this statement:

"As a local, woman-owned dental practice, we would not permit any of our employees to be exposed to any harassment or other unlawful conduct. We have faithfully and proudly served Western New York since 2009, and pride ourselves on providing a safe and friendly work environment that is free of unlawful harassment and discrimination, and promotes equal employment opportunity for all.

"As soon as Stellar Dental Care became aware of these allegations in 2014, we conducted a prompt and thorough investigation and determined them to be without merit. We continue to believe that is the case and strongly disagree with the decision of the New York State Division of Human Rights. While we are profoundly disappointed in this result, we have made the difficult business decision not to appeal further due to the significant costs associated with protracted litigation against New York State."

The Appellate Division ruling June 15 also ordered Stellar Dental to provide sensitivity training for managers on sexual harassment in the workplace.

The ruling came in the wake of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault of women that erupted in 2017 when a long line of victims accused Hollywood film czar Harvey Weinstein of sexual abuse.

"The sexual harassment in this case was verbal and physical, and went on for a long period of time," said Housh. "My clients' trauma was compounded by the fact that when they reported the humiliation, they were not merely ignored, they were fired."

Ruffins, 52, who resides in Buffalo, worked at Stellar Dental three weeks before she was fired. She described Eady as "aggressive and demanding." From the beginning, Ruffins said, Eady asked questions that made her uncomfortable.

"He would ask, 'Are you happily married? Would you cheat on your husband?' " recalled Ruffins. "He would always do judo in slow motion. He would touch me on the shoulder, near my breast and my thigh.

"You kind of brush it off, but when he touched the inside of my thigh, I reported him. [Managers] would always say he was just being friendly. Well, I didn't want to be friendly like that, and I made it clear."

Henderson, 54, of Grand Island, is an experienced dental assistant who loved her career.

"The problem was when you complained, then all of a sudden you were doing your work wrong," said Henderson. "The atmosphere there was not good. The managers seemed to take his side. They'd say he was just playing around, that he didn't mean anything."

One day Ruffins witnessed Eady grope Henderson from behind, both women said. Ruffins could not believe what she had seen.

"He swooped his arms from around back and grabbed her breasts," Ruffins recalled. "I asked Beth: 'Girl, are you going to say anything?' That's how he was always touching you. Even when he touched my arm it was more like a caress."

Martel lives in Lancaster, and she worked at Stellar for two years. She remembered the nickname Eady used to call her.

"He called me 'Hot Sauce.' I told him that was not my name and that I didn't like it," she said. "He would just laugh and think it was funny."

"He'd grab my sides from the back, try and tickle me. He hugged me and started asking me out for drinks," Martel said.

After Ruffins and Henderson were fired, Martel said she thought she would be next.

"I'm a single mom," Martel said. "I need my job. Except for Aaron, I loved that job. So I got a job and quit."

Ruffins, Henderson and Martel are now employed at local dental offices.

Nellie Drew, an attorney on the faculty of the University at Buffalo School of Law, specializes in sexual harassment cases involving women in sports. She said employers who do not terminate a worker with sexual harassment issues are guilty of poor judgment.

"These women were discriminated against," said Drew. "They were experiencing conduct that is illegal. Their employers violated the law. It is poor judgment by their employers not to terminate" Eady.

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