Former 911 director files discrimination suit against Cleburne County official
by Laura Camper
news@cleburnenews.com
Feb 05, 2014 | 7244 views |  0 comments | 78 78 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In this file photo, Cleburne County Administrator and EMA Director Steve Swafford stands in front siren. Swafford is named in a discrimination lawsuit filed against Cleburne County by former 911 director Melinda Gonzalez. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
In this file photo, Cleburne County Administrator and EMA Director Steve Swafford stands in front siren. Swafford is named in a discrimination lawsuit filed against Cleburne County by former 911 director Melinda Gonzalez. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
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HEFLIN — The former director of Cleburne County 911 filed a lawsuit against the Cleburne County Commission and the county administrator in December, alleging religious and gender discrimination on the job.

The lawsuit follows a complaint that Melinda Gonzalez, 41, filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in June.

Gonzalez alleged that she was paid less than her predecessor because she was a woman and that throughout her employment with 911, County Administrator Steve Swafford treated her with “belittling, demeaning and harassing behavior because of her gender.”

Gonzalez worked for Cleburne County 911 since December 1999, Swafford said. She became the 911 director in June 2005, he said.

According to the complaint and to a written statement provided by Swafford, Gonzalez filed an appeal against Swafford in May after she received a written “disciplinary action” for insubordination. Her complaint went to a county grievance committee, which denied her request to overturn the disciplinary action.

Gonzalez also said she complained to Human Resources about Swafford’s behavior toward her. Her complaint in the lawsuit charges that throughout her employment Swafford directed sexual comments toward her and the other women working for the county. She wrote that he asked her to show him her breasts and that he used offensive language to refer to the women. Gonzalez charged that Swafford singled her out and that the disciplinary action for insubordination was unfounded.

Swafford said the county hired April McKay, an independent attorney, to investigate Gonzalez’s allegations against Swafford. McKay found no evidence of harassment or discrimination, Swafford said.

Gonzalez received a letter with a right to sue from the EEOC in October. The letter said the EEOC was closing the case but was unable to conclude whether any laws were broken.

Justine Lisser, spokeswoman for the EEOC, said the letter simply notifies the person who filed the complaint that the EEOC has closed the case. Anyone alleging discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 must file their complaint with the EEOC before going to court, Lisser said. The EEOC investigates the cases and it may offer mediation or some other resolution or, if it finds reasonable cause, it can take the case to court. However, the EEOC investigation has no effect on an individual claim, she said.

The EEOC is in place to screen the complaints and possibly resolve some of them informally before they reach the court system, Lisser said.

“We receive not quite 100,000 charges a year,” Lisser said. “A small fraction of those go to court.”

According to the EEOC’s website, 155 lawsuits were filed in fiscal year 2012.

Gonzalez was placed on administrative leave pending dismissal on Jan. 10, Swafford said. On Jan. 13, the Human Resources Department informed her she could pick up her disciplinary paperwork informing her of her pending dismissal, he said. Later that day, the county received paperwork about the lawsuit, he added.

Gonzalez was fired Jan. 21 for insubordination, Swafford said, adding that she was fired before the county was served with the paperwork for the lawsuit.

Gonzalez’s lawsuit seeks compensatory damages and back pay.

Heather Leonard, Gonzalez’s attorney, declined to comment on the case saying any comment on pending litigation could influence a potential jury. However, she said the next step in the case will be Cleburne County’s answer to the charges which is due Feb. 3. The case should be scheduled for trial within a year from Feb. 3, Leonard said.

Attempts to reach Gonzalez for comment were unsuccessful.

Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.

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