Chester 911 center director files sex discrimination lawsuit against Sheriff's Office

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comJuly 13, 2013 

— The director of Chester County’s emergency 911 center has filed a federal sex discrimination lawsuit against the Chester County Sheriff's Office, alleging that former Sheriff Richard Smith demoted her from the top administrative position more than a year ago because she is a woman.

Virginia "Ginny" Sloan, who oversees dispatchers relaying all emergency medical, police and fire calls throughout the county, claims in the suit that Smith “suddenly, and without justification” removed her from her position as the center’s director in December 2011 and made her a 911 dispatcher, a less-paying job.

Sloan was reinstated to her former position by current sheriff Alex Underwood, who defeated Smith in the November 2012 election.

She claims Smith replaced her with a less-qualified man who required “undue” assistance while in that position, according to the court documents. 

She contends that current Sheriff Alex Underwood returned her to the administrative post when he took office in January. Still, Underwood is named in the suit because he is the current elected official in office.

Sloan, a county employee since 2001, is seeking back pay and compensatory damages for the money she lost while working as a dispatcher, and the emotional and mental distress she suffered as a result of the demotion, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit does not specify how much money Sloan is asking for, but she has requested a jury trial.

The Sheriff’s Office has denied Sloan’s allegations, only acknowledging that Richard Smith is no longer in office, and that Underwood reinstated Sloan to her administrative job.

Underwood is named as a defendant in the suit because he’s the current sheriff. He referred comments to Joan E. Winters, Chester County’s attorney.

No action has been taken in the case since the Sheriff’s Office replied to the suit on June 27.

“The Defendant’s actions were at all times objectively reasonable under the existing law...(the defendant) at all times acted in good faith...and without malice or intent to harm or discriminate,” according to attorneys.

Sloan began working as the 911 director in August 2009, her attorney, Janet Rhodes, said. Rhodes would not discuss how much money Sloan lost when she became a 911 dispatcher for more than a year.

The minimum salary for Sloan’s job is $36,000; the midpoint is more than $43,000; and the maximum just over $50,000, said Cindy Goettsch, Chester County human resources director.

The salary range for an entry level 911 dispatcher is $26,000, Goettsch said. The maximum is between $29,000 and $30,000. None of the dispatchers currently working for the county make more than $30,000.

Rhodes refused to answer questions about Sloan’s work conditions under Smith. She also would not say if there had been any conversations or messages exchanged between Smith and Sloan indicating that she was demoted because of her gender.

In a request to have the complaint dismissed, lawyers for the Sheriff’s Office argue that Sloan failed to exhaust “all administrative remedies” before filing suit.

Those remedies, Rhodes said, were fulfilled when Sloan initially filed a discrimination claim with the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission.

“This is the first administrative step in the process of a (sex discrimination) lawsuit,” she said. “That usually is filed from six months to a year before the actual lawsuit being filed.”

Rhodes was unable to recall the dates when Sloan filed the claim.

Raymond Buxton, human affairs commissioner, said his office had no record of Sloan filing a discrimination claim.

According to court documents, Sloan filed a claim with the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC). Rhodes said the human affairs commission acts as the state agency for the EEOC.

When claims are filed with the EEOC, officials investigate to determine whether there is cause for the commission to file suit, said Joseph Seiner, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who teaches classes in labor law and employment discrimination.

The EEOC finds just cause for suits in only about 5 percent of the 100,000 claims it receives in a year, said Seiner, who worked with the EEOC in Washington, D.C., for several years.

“If no charge is found, you’re given a right to sue letter and you can go to court,” he said. But, “just because the EEOC doesn’t find cause does not mean you won’t ultimately prevail in the case.”

In Sloan’s lawsuit, attorneys say the EEOC gave Sloan “the right to sue.”

The “best way” for a plaintiff to win a sex discrimination suit is to submit as evidence a letter written by the employer, saying the employee is being demoted because of his or her gender, said Dennis Nolan, a professor emeritus of law at USC who also operates an arbitration and mediation practice in Beaufort County.

“That doesn’t happen very often, except in television shows,” he said. “There aren’t many smoking guns.”

It’s not unusual, he said, for an employee suing an employer to still be on the job.

“Needless to say, employers don’t like being accused of things like that, and they tend not to treat people who make accusations very well,” Nolan said. “The making of the accusation is itself a protected activity; they can’t lawfully discriminate against someone on that basis.”

“You have a delicate dance the parties go through,” he added. “Oftentimes, there are employers who aren’t quite so sophisticated and react negatively by firing somebody or mistreating them because of an allegation like this.”

Those types of behaviors, he said, can result in another lawsuit.

Rhodes, Sloan’s lawyer, said her client is “very pleased” with Underwood, the current sheriff. “She has a lot of respect for the new sheriff.”

Earlier this year, Sloan was instrumental in helping Underwood sift through several hundred arrest warrants that authorities discovered were never served during Smith's tenure as sheriff. Those warrants, some of which officials said are still being served, include charges for assault, larceny and rape.

Sloan told The Herald in January that she spent late nights and weekends helping Underwood locate the warrants, most of which were found stashed in file cabinets, under desks or in large plastic bins, and enter them in the Sheriff's Office computer system as unserved. 

She is currently on medical leave following a surgical procedure.

In a “typical” sex discrimination case, a defendant can incur punitive and compensatory damages up to $300,000, the maximum amount of money a plaintiff is able to receive in back pay and attorney’s fees, Seiner said.

Avoiding hefty legal fees can be an incentive for both parties to reach a quick settlement, Nolan said.

“Some sort of settlement is very common in complaints like that, if only to avoid legal fees, or in some cases to avoid publicity or having to go through the whole process,” he said.

But whether an employer chooses to settle a discrimination lawsuit is often a question of policy, Seiner said.

“You don’t want to open the floodgates to having other people start coming forward with allegations that may not be true, or may be borderline claims,” he said. “Maybe (the parties) can settle the case, but if they do and word gets around, there’s a concern other people might come forward.”

By contrast, public officials “dealing with public funds and public dollars” might feel that they are not “justified in paying this individual anything,” he said. “It’s hard to guess.”

Winters, Chester County’s attorney, would not discuss the possibility of a settlement. Winters owns a private law practice specializing in labor and employment litigation. “This is the type of lawsuit we do all the time,” she said.

She declined to comment further on the suit beyond what had already been drafted in legal documents, citing pending litigation and Sloan’s current status as a county employee.

“It would be improper for us to comment,” she said.

Smith deferred comments to Winters, but wrote in an email to The Herald, “I will say that this is simply not true…I am trying to move on with my life.

“In my opinion, this is nothing but an attempt to discredit me because some people think I am (a) threat if I were to run for sheriff again in four years,” he said.

Smith, who had been sheriff in Chester County for four years until last Election Day, indicated that he does not currently have plans to run for reelection.

Sloan declined to comment.

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