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Former elections employees out of luck, special judge rules

by Jordan Green

by Jordan Green jordan@yesweekly.com

Ajudge has thrown out a lawsuit filed by three former Forsyth County Board of Elections employees claiming that the county was negligent in hiring and retaining the director of the office and that he wrongfully terminated one of the workers in retaliation for reporting inappropriate conduct.

The Oct. 1 dismissal by Superior Court Judge Robby Hassell likely brings to a close a legal saga that has clouded the reputation of the elections office since former employees Pam Johnson, Terry Cox and Deena Head first went public with allegations of harassment and insensitivity by Elections Director Rob Coffman in late 2010. The plaintiffs have the opportunity to appeal.

Brad Hill, a lawyer for the plaintiffs who is employed by the Raleigh law firm Hairston Lane Brannon, said Hassell dismissed the lawsuit based on a determination that Forsyth County’s insurance policy did not waive immunity.

Another judge dismissed a whistleblower claim in July based on a finding that the local board of elections is not a state agency. Johnson and Cox publicly alleged that Coffman had committed multiple violations of election law.

The defendants, who include Coffman, the three-member Forsyth County Board of Elections and the county, denied that the two employees reported the alleged violations to the three-member board or officials at the NC Board of Elections. The local board declared in 2011 that it “found no credible evidence of intentional violations of the voting laws.”

Government immunity is part of a complex legal doctrine, but the fact that the plaintiffs’ claims were torts rather than allegations of discrimination made a critical difference.

“Governmental immunity does apply to local governments and is a doctrine established by case law,” Hill told YES! Weekly in an e-mail. “However, governmental immunity, unlike sovereign immunity, only applies to tort liability. It does not provide immunity claims for breach of contract, violations of state constitutional rights or § 1983 claims for violations of federal constitutional or statutory rights by persons acting under the color of state law.”

The lawsuit claimed that after Coffman was hired in 2006, he “repeatedly made gender/sex/race based derogatory comments to and/or about employees.” The defendants have denied that allegation, among many others.

Coffman’s workplace behavior was the subject of a conversation between Don Wright, general counsel for the NC Board of Elections, and Rebecca VanderKlok, another former employee, in January 2011. An audio recording of the conversation was provided to YES! Weekly.

“There’s no question that Rob Coffman can be the biggest jerk in the world,” Wright said at the time.

“You’re right: It’s been consistent from Day 1. He’s consistent. The question is: How does that affect the operation of the office?” The lawsuit alleges that in the fall of 2008 Coffman introduced Head, a seasonal employee who is African American, to an outside consultant as “the local crack ho” who was “on loan to us from the jail” in the presence of several employees.

When asked about the alleged comment in the past, Coffman denied making the statement attributed to him but acknowledged that what he said was out of line and that he was ordered to undergo racial sensitivity training.

The defendants admit to only one of the alleged offensive remarks — that Coffman told Johnson’s ex-husband, a reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal, during a private conversation that “he knew why he divorced her.” The defendants answered that “Coffman made a jesting, off-therecord statement” that might have been similar to the one alleged.

Wright had told VanderKlok: “Rob admits he’s a jerk, too, if you confront him. I said, ‘Rob, you’ve said so many stupid things at the most stupid times.’ I’ve told him that. He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Can’t you control your mouth?’ He said, “I have trouble.’ I said, ‘You’ve only got yourself to blame.’” Forsyth County Board of Elections Chair Linda Sutton, a Democrat, said in February 2011 that the board looked into and discussed allegations of employee misconduct that were protected from public disclosure by state personnel law. The board took no action after going into closed session.

Previously, whether or not Coffman would remain employed with the elections office had been a matter of speculation, and top officials at the NC Board of Elections were closely following the situation in Forsyth County.

“If 2012 comes around and the situation is Rob Coffman is still in there — basically, Rob’s a jerk,” Wright, the state board’s general counsel, told VanderKlok. “He says the wrong things. He doesn’t treat people well, but he does get the election out. So basically, if anything’s going to be done, it’s going to be 2011. It has to be, because we got to take the interests of the people to get the election done.”

Coffman said he was unable to comment for this story, and referred questions to James Morgan, a lawyer with the Winston-Salem law firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge Rice who represents the defendants. Morgan did not return calls.

The hearing on the defendant’s motion for summary judgment was originally assigned to Judge Richard L. Doughton, a special judge from Alleghany County who is available to travel across the state on assignment by the chief justice of the NC Supreme Court. Judge Hassell replaced Doughton for unknown reasons. Hassell was originally appointed in the 1990s by Gov. Jim Hunt to serve as a district court judge in Guilford County, and was appointed as a special judge by Gov. Bev Perdue in 2009.

The lawsuit contends that Deena Head, the seasonal worker, was denied opportunities to work after being subjected to repeated derogatory remarks by Coffman. The defendants categorically denied the claims.

The lawsuit alleges that Johnson was fired in May 2009 for the stated reason that she failed to pay invoices for the board of elections on time. The defendants contend that Johnson resigned.

Similarly, the lawsuit contends that employee Terry Cox took an early retirement in November 2009 based on the advice of his doctor and because of his deteriorating mental and physical health. The defendants deny that Coffman “made repeated derogatory and humiliating comments” to Cox about his age and visual impairment or that Cox underwent “psychiatric and cardiac rehabilitation… for stress-related health issues that resulted from working with” Coffman.

Hill, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, said his clients have been advised to not speak publicly about the lawsuit.

“As a result of the repeated verbal abuse and hostile working environment, plaintiff Head has suffered severe emotional and mental distress, extreme states of depression and damage to her educational and professional career,” the lawsuit reads. The defendants denied the claim.

A Sept. 27 filing on behalf of the plaintiffs reports that after Johnson was fired from the board of elections she “was forced to join her husband’s health insurance policy to maintain coverage. The cost of insurance premiums increased and ultimately, plaintiff’s husband was laid off in part due to the increased burden of his insurance demands. From that point forward, plaintiff has had to pay for her medical expense out of pocket.”

The filing also said that because of Johnson’s loss of income she almost lost her house, causing her to pay “a significant sum to reinstate her mortgage.”

The filing notes that Cox lost significant income, longevity bonuses and retirement benefits as a result of leaving the elections office.

“Plaintiff Cox has incurred additional insurance and medical expenses due to the loss of the health insurance previously provided by the Forsyth County Board of Elections,” the filing reads. “Plaintiff Cox also suffers from diabetes and the loss of insurance has resulted in him being forced to utilize inferior treatments to manage his condition.”

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