Until recently, women who were interested in becoming a Nebraska State Patrol officer had to undergo a medically-unnecessary pre-employment vaginal exam that included exposing their genitalia to a male doctor they didn't know, according to a lawsuit filed earlier this week in federal court.
The suit alleges that the plaintiff, state trooper Brienne Splittgerber, was forced to submit to a "medically unnecessary and sexually invasive" procedure in 2014 as a recruit before she was hired, and that, with the exception of possibly one case, "men were not required to undergo a similar physical examination."
Tom White, the attorney who filed the suit, summarizes what Splittberger and others allegedly were forced to endure. He tells Broadly: "Female candidates were required to disrobe, lay on their back on the exam table, place their feet flat on the table and open their knees exposing their genitalia. They were then required to roll over to their side and lift a buttock, thereby exposing their anus."
The plaintiff seeks an unspecified amount of damages on the grounds that she was denied equal protection, was forced to occupy a hostile work environment, and was intentionally inflicted with emotional distress.
According to the complaint, because she "understood she was required to submit to Dr. [Stephen] Haudrich's instructions as a condition of employment as a sworn officer of the State Patrol," Splittberger went along with the exam. Later, when she talked to her personal doctor, she realized that her rights may have been violated and maintains that she "did not consent to medically unnecessary procedures."
In addition to listing Haudrich, the patrol and the state of Nebraska, the suit also names two former patrol heads, Brad Rice and David Sankey, as defendants. Splittberger says in the complaint that when she raised concerns about the exam, she was ignored for more than two years. During that time, at least two classes of female troopers underwent similar exams by the same doctor. By March of earlier this year, after the plaintiff informed her commanders that she'd retained an attorney, an email exchange between counsel for the Nebraska State Patrol and counsel for the Nebraska Troopers Association revealed that the exams were to supposedly check for hernias, according to the complaint.
"At that point it became clear the Plaintiffs concerns were being dismissed and the events covered up," the suit states. "No explanation was ever provided to Plaintiff why even after her report female candidates continued to be required to submit to the unnecessary and humiliating examination."
And in fact, a medical professional told the Omaha World-Herald that requiring a woman to expose herself in order to check for a hernia is "highly unusual and a bit suspect." That kind of check, Nebraska family physician Dr. David Hoelting continued, would likely instead involve pressing on the abdomen to feel for anything unusual.
Moreover, Rice, the former head of the Nebraska State Patrol and one of the defendants in the suit, was fired less than two months ago for possibly interfering in internal investigations. He also allegedly once said that women don't belong in law enforcement, and was the supervisor of a female trooper who successfully sued the patrol for gender discrimination.
Authorities have since launched a criminal investigation into Splittberger's allegations, according to a statement given to the Associated Press on behalf of the governor's office, though it's unclear who is currently being investigated. An attorney for the State Patrol has declined to comment on the pending litigation, and a call to the State Patrol's Public Information Office was unanswered as of press time.
"Requiring vaginal exams as a condition of employment is nothing short of state-sanctioned rape of women."
White, Splittgerber's attorney, says he's been filing cases like this one for 30 years. When asked what message he hopes this suit will send to women who find themselves in similar situations, his response is short and pointed: "One can only hope it makes a difference," he says.
Noreen Farrell is the executive director of Equal Rights Advocates. "This goes far beyond an unfair or discriminatory labor practice," she tells Broadly. "Requiring vaginal exams as a condition of employment is nothing short of state-sanctioned rape of women. If sexual assault is a police force application requirement, we can only imagine what women are being asked to do to keep their jobs. This is a chilling reminder of how far we have yet to go to ensure safety and equal opportunity for women in the workplace."