The 29-year-old Kansas City native was living in Florida and had been working in the adult education and training field for seven years when she learned of a high-level job opening for a director of employment and training in the Kansas Department of Human Resources. Beaven applied and earned an appointment from Governor Bill Graves. She couldn't believe her good luck. She would be the youngest division director, overseeing 300 employees, and would be the only woman in her department at that level. Elated, she moved to Topeka to take the job.
But on her first day of work at the agency charged with enforcing Kansas labor laws -- including those forbidding workplace discrimination and harassment -- Beaven got the feeling her boss was flirting with her.
"When he introduced me to my staff ... he was all touchy and giggly -- like a high-school boy with a crush," Beaven alleges, remembering that day in February 1999. "Several of the women came up to me and commented on it later. It was very obvious. And bizarre."
A few months into the job, Beaven learned that her predecessor, Jill Crumpacker, had been fired after complaining about discrimination, unfair treatment of women and unequal pay at the KDHR. Crumpacker had written a formal complaint after discovering that someone had used one of her division's laptop computers to visit more than 800 pornographic Web sites while it had been checked out by the department's chief legal counsel, A.J. Kotich.
"Pretty soon it became clear to me that I was probably hired because I was a young woman, so that when they went to court they could say, 'Look, we're not discriminating against women,'" Beaven tells the Pitch.
Beaven says that her immediate supervisor, Deputy Secretary of Human Resources Roger Aeschliman -- the one who introduced her to her staff -- and his boss, Secretary of Human Resources Richard Beyer, both of whom had also been appointed by Governor Bill Graves, started making daily comments about her physical appearance and clothing. She says they told her to stop wearing pastel-colored suits, to wear only navy, black or tan and to comb her trendy, cropped hair more often.
Aeschliman and Beyer said the other women at the KDHR were jealous because she was "beautiful" and had "more charisma in [her] pinky than they have in their whole bodies," Beaven alleges. Aeschliman would sign business e-mails "XOXOXO, Rog," she says.
Crumpacker had experienced similar treatment, according to court records. Documents Crumpacker later filed as part of a federal lawsuit reveal that her boss, Wayne Franklin, then-secretary of human resources, told Crumpacker that she wore too many business suits, that her clothing made her seem "harsh" and "unapproachable." She should "soften her dress," he reportedly told her.
Crumpacker and Beaven both complained to Personnel Director Janet Palmer, whose job it was to investigate complaints of discrimination and harassment within the KDHR. But Palmer would later say in depositions that Aeschliman's and Beyer's comments were acceptable in the workplace. Palmer said she didn't bother to investigate Crumpacker's and Beaven's complaints because she found them "trivial" and "without merit."
Neither Aeschliman nor Beyer returned the Pitch's phone calls.
Fearing that she would be fired, Beaven reluctantly quit her job in August 2000. After giving a deposition in the Crumpacker case, she decided to file her own lawsuit.
But Beaven had no idea how hard it would be to sue the state of Kansas for discrimination.
Crumpacker's lawsuit has been dragging on for nearly five years. Kansas continues to plead that the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives it "sovereign immunity" from being sued under federal discrimination laws such as the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
Three states -- Minnesota, Illinois and North Carolina -- have in recent years passed laws waiving that immunity and accepting responsibility for discrimination that happens in a state-run workplace, whether it's on the basis of age, race, sex or disability. Other states, such as Missouri, have modern human rights acts that effectively serve as a waiver of that exemption, says John Gage, president of the Kansas chapter of the National Employment Lawyers Association.
But the Kansas Act Against Discrimination was written in 1953, and Gage says it is so inadequate that "almost universally, cases get filed in federal court." If a plaintiff wanted to file suit under the outdated Kansas act, her lawyer might file in state court. But a suit under any federal anti-discrimination law would almost certainly be filed in federal court, where judges are more knowledgeable about those laws. But it's also where the state can claim immunity.
"You can wind up litigating immunity issues for years before you get down to litigating the case itself," Gage says. "That makes it much more expensive to litigate against the state." Gage says that if a client is unable to pay anything up-front, a lawyer willing to work on contingency could easily pay $15,000 in expenses and put in $50,000 worth of time before being paid. That makes lawyers reluctant to take such cases.
Beaven's lawyer, Gene Graham, who still represents Crumpacker, dropped Beaven's case after two years. Beaven says difficulty finding a lawyer may have discouraged four other women who still work at the KDHR from pursuing their cases.
"[Graham] called us and said, 'I just can't keep financially funding these cases that are going on for years and years,'" Beaven says. "We were all really disappointed by Gene's decision and surprised by it, but he's got mouths to feed at home, so it's understandable."
Beaven spoke to several attorneys before finding another one to take her case, which she filed in U.S. District Court in October. Her new lawyer, Jeffery Sutton, says he knows that the case may take years to conclude. "The issue is that Heather needed protection, and if I believe that a case has merit, I will take it whether it's against a governmental agency or a private entity," he says. "You just can't take a lot of cases like this, because you can't wait that long to get paid."
Ironically, women have been complaining at the KDHR -- supposedly the defender of equal treatment for all workers -- for years.
Caryn McCue Woltkamp, who started working for the KDHR in 1979, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1990, four years after a new boss arrived. Woltkamp accused Joseph Ybarra of groping her, asking for sex and begging her to pose nude for photographs. She filed her federal lawsuit in 1993 and finally prevailed in 1999 when a jury awarded her $510,000.
"I believe there is a pattern and practice of gender discrimination at the KDHR," Woltkamp's lawyer, Timothy Monsees, tells the Pitch.
In 1997, a KDHR task force reported that women in the department were promoted only occasionally, that they had no opportunity for career development, that male employees were "making decisions for women" and that many women "felt patronized."
Crumpacker's lawyer, Graham, says he hopes that female Governor-elect Kathleen Sebelius will "take a long, hard look at what's going on over there and take some concrete actions toward improving the working environment for women." In the meantime, he is waiting for a decision from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals to determine whether the KDHR will be granted immunity in Crumpacker's suit. Sutton says that the court's decision will determine whether he proceeds with Beaven's case.
"Hopefully, even if I never see my day in court, I can make a difference for the 30,000 employees of the state of Kansas," Beaven says. She is also determined to push for legislation that would force the state -- the largest employer in Kansas -- to accept responsibility for discrimination.