Nashville at law: Even the deacons?

Top local executive accused of oversharing with secretary in sex-harassment lawsuit [From our print edition featured in Monday's City Paper]

If the 34 quotations Dawn-joy Thornton cites in her sexual-harassment lawsuit against the former CEO of a major Nashville corporation are accurate, she must have been keeping a special notebook in her desk.

The litany of statements that Roger Brown, part-owner and co-creator of Vista-Pro Automotive LLC, allegedly made to Thornton in the few months she was his executive assistant runs from the inappropriate but flattering — “Your eyes are gorgeous.”— to the downright raunchy: “I’ve had a lot of bad thoughts. I bet you are good. I bet we’d be good together.”

Thornton filed suit last week in Davidson County Circuit Court against Brown and Vista-Pro. The company, which chose Nashville as its headquarters in 2009, makes and distributes aftermarket radiators and other auto parts. It has operations across North and Central America.

Brown is a former principal of Brentwood-based private equity firm Centrum Equities, which combined with other funders, including Brown himself, to create Vista-Pro last year by purchasing the assets of troubled auto suppliers. Brown previously served as president of Shoney’s Inc. after Centrum bought the Nashville restaurant chain in 2006.

He was initially president and CEO of Vista-Pro, but the company said in April it had hired someone else for that role. That news came a couple of months after Thornton, an aspiring Christian-country singer/songwriter from Portland, Ore., quit her job as Brown’s assistant on Feb. 26 of this year.

Thornton asserts that after she started work at Vista-Pro in early September 2009, almost on a daily basis, Brown “propositioned her to engage in sexual conduct and repeatedly described his past extramarital sexual conduct.” Among the other statements she quotes are the following:

• “I could take you to a hotel and have some fun.”

• “I’m actually a good guy. I’ve only had two affairs. That’s really good. All my buddies have eight girlfriends a year.”

• “Even the deacons at my church have affairs.”

• “When I hired you I thought I needed you, but now I realize you need me. You need someone to have a wild experience with and loosen up. One of the women I had an affair with, I told you about, said I was basically easier than pulling out her vibrator.”

• “Any time you want to be spontaneous, just say the word, and I'll get my jet that minute, and we'll go anywhere in the world.”

• “What's in it for you? Expensive jewelry. Airplanes. Fancy hotels. Clothes. Do you know what you could have if you let me set you up?”

Davidson County real estate records show that Brown was married to his wife Jennifer as of November 2009. She sold their home in Brentwood’s exclusive Governors Club in March 2009 for $5 million, after he had deeded it to her a couple of years earlier.

Thornton claims Brown became angry when he saw a copy of Vista-Pro’s sexual harassment policy on her desk. At that point, she says, he turned on her and began badmouthing her job performance. He allegedly also told one employee that Thornton “was lying about everything” and was suing him “because she had financial problems.”

The lawsuit seeks $2 million in damages for harassment, emotional distress and defamation. George H. “Chip” Riegel II and Christen C. Blackburn of Leitner, Williams, Dooley & Napolitan PLLC filed the complaint on her behalf.

“The evidence in this case refutes Ms. Thornton’s claims, and we look forward to presenting that evidence at the appropriate time,” responded Bryan E. Pieper of Drescher & Sharp PC, representing Roger Brown personally.

M. Kim Vance, a partner at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC, issued a statement on behalf of Vista-Pro: “We believe the allegations in the plaintiff’s complaint are without merit, and the company plans to vigorously defend the lawsuit.”

Davidson County Circuit Court

John and Jane Doe v. Jeremy T. Bilbrey and Centennial Medical Center. Filed June 21.

A Davidson County husband and wife sue a male nurse who is facing criminal charges for sexually assaulting the woman during an emergency room visit on July 1, 2009.

The woman had suffered a fall in the shower and was transported to the hospital via ambulance. At the hospital, Bilbrey, now 32, of Williamson County, allegedly undressed the woman, gave her morphine and Dilaudid, fondled her, and used his fingers to penetrate her.

HCA’s Centennial Medical Center is also named as a defendant, with the claim that the hospital failed to protect the woman from Bilbrey. He was indicted on rape charges last year.

The lawsuit states the woman has experienced fear and anxiety, incurring medical and psychological treatment expenses. It seeks $500,000 in compensatory and $1.5 million in punitive damages.

Plaintiff’s attorney: Steve North of Madison.

— James Nix