Ex-worker's suit could cost Hamilton County $90,000

Ex-worker's suit could cost Hamilton County $90,000

November 16th, 2013 by Louie Brogdon in Local Regional News

Hamilton County Commissioners conduct business during a commission meeting in this file photo.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

Hamilton County commissioners are expected to vote next week whether to pay $90,000 to a former county employee who claims Register of Deeds Pam Hurst fired her and discriminated against her for a medical disability.

According to federal court filings, Hurst fired Deputy Clerk Gayla Moates in November 2010 after Moates, who has rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes, had missed weeks of work because of her disability and a related surgery.

In a Nov. 16, 2010, termination letter, Hurst said Moates' need for time off for doctor's appointments and recovery was disruptive to the office, and she no longer had a job. Moates had worked there for 13 years and had good evaluations before she was diagnosed with the illness in 2005, according to filings.

Moates, who filed the lawsuit in October 2011, claimed to have endured years of discrimination and an unjust firing.

County Attorney Rheubin Taylor said Friday the payment would settle Moates' lawsuit against the county, Hurst and her office. Despite the settlement, the county still holds that the firing was for just cause, Taylor said.

The settlement was an economic decision, he said.

"Looking at the economics behind the whole thing, it could have become more expensive," Taylor said. "It was heading toward trial, and of course there is risk on both sides in going to trial. Both sides found this was agreeable to settle."

Court filings by Moates' attorney, Donna Mikel, indicate a pattern of alleged discrimination and derision in Hurst's office, some of which may have affected more employees than Moates.

In one filing, Mikel wrote that despite Moates' reliance on a cane to walk -- and legal handicap status -- Hurst would not allow Moates or any employee to park in handicap parking spaces at the office.

Mikel also wrote that Hurst illegally used medical information in employee performance evaluations, penalizing Moates for having "excessive sick leave" or being "absent more often than other employees for colds, flu, gastritis, etc." Further, Moates was given bad marks for "frequent unscheduled short-term absences (with or without medical explanation)."

Taylor said Friday that Hurst, an elected constitutional officer who has not adopted the county's personnel policy, is still using the same evaluation form.

Mikel declined to comment Thursday, citing provisions in a settlement agreement with the county. The settlement will not be complete until commissioners vote to release the payment.

Moates's suit isn't the only one the county is fighting.

Nancy Beckham sued the county in September 2012. Beckham, a former health department nurse, also has rheumatoid arthritis and other ailments.

According to her suit, Beckham was fired in February 2012 for not being as productive as other nurses. The department has a "race to the bell" policy for seeing patients, and Beckham's disability prevented her from walking quickly, according to the suit.

Because of that, she received poor performance evaluations. Beckham also was suspended for missing work when her daughter was in a car accident because she had exhausted her family medical leave due to her own illness, surgery and treatment, according to filings.

That case is still ongoing in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon @timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6481.