Former ACC auditor files federal lawsuit, claiming she was fired for exercizing right of free speech
By Joe Johnson
One month after she was fired, former Athens-Clarke County internal auditor Stephanie Maddox filed suit in federal court against the county collectively and Mayor Kelly Girtz and Manager Blaine Williams individually, alleging that she was terminated for exercising her First Amendment right to free speech while working in a hostile environment.
The lawsuit seeks monetary compensation, punitive damages and reinstatement as a county employee in a position comparable to her former job.
Girtz said he could not comment on pending litigation and Williams did not respond to a request for comment.
Maddox, who headed the county's Operational Analysis Office since 2015, alleges that Williams and Girtz created a “toxic” work environment after she filed state Open Records Act requests for a consultant’s report of a compensation and pay study that the consultant conducted.
She said the request was made in October 2018, after receiving numerous complaints from county employees about their salaries in comparison with those of their peers in other counties, according to a complaint filed on Oct. 28 in U.S. District Court in Athens
Williams and Girtz allegedly confronted Maddox separately, questioning her about her request for the consultant’s report, according to the complaint, and the mayor also issued a formal reprimand and a personal improvement plan in regards to perceived inadequacies with Maddox's job performance.
Prior to making the Open Records Act request, Maddox “heard the various innuendos from some members of the public and from the various advocacy groups that the contents of the report had indicated various misappropriations of public funds and other various contradictory misuse of allocated funds,” Maddox alleges in the complaint.
Two days after Maddox requested the report, Williams asked her why she wanted the report since it had nothing to do with her assigned duties, according to the complaint, "and he concluded that the only reason she requested the report was to give it to the media and other members of the public.”
During the meeting, the complaint alleges, Williams was “screaming that he would have (Maddox’s) job unless she left this matter alone.”
“Defendant Williams’ attempts to block plaintiff from duly filing an Open Records Act request to obtain the Consultant’s report, a public document, by threatening her employment violated plaintiff’s right to free speech,” according to the complaint.”
Following her meeting with the county manager, the complaint notes, Maddox contacted county commissioners to inform them of Williams’ threats to have her fired for misusing time and staff to request a report that had nothing to do with her duties, and “some commissioners expressed their concerns about the consultant’s report and the fact that they had not yet seen this document.”
According to the complaint, former mayor Nancy Denson, who hired Maddox in 2015, told Maddox that if she rescinded the Open Records request “she would see that plaintiff receive a copy of the consultant’s report and the other documents as set forth in her request.”
After obtaining and reviewing the pay study Maddox “discovered that Defendant Williams had misappropriated more than 4.8 million dollars by not eliminating compression and only choosing to evaluate a limited number of positions within ACC,” the complaint alleges.
After Girtz succeeded Denson as mayor in January 2019, he met with Maddox for their first monthly meeting in which he told the auditor about what Williams had told him about Maddox wanting the consultant’s report so that she could give it to the media and public, according to the complaint, and “Girtz gave plaintiff a stern warning about repeating such conduct if she wanted to remain employed by ACC.”
The complaint alleges that Williams’ “unsupported allegation to Defendant Girtz that plaintiff only sought the report to give it to the media and to the public, thus causing Defendant Girtz to initiate a pattern of harassment which culminated with plaintiff’s termination violated right to free speech – to request public documents without retaliation.”
After Maddox had her monthly meeting with the new mayor, the complaint alleges that Maddox’s assistants would not perform routine, assigned tasks because “Girtz told them that they did not have to listen to plaintiff because she was a ‘nobody’ and (her) position did not matter to anyone in ACC.”
Maddox asked Girtz for her assistants to follow the proper chain of command by bringing complaints to her rather than going to the mayor, to which the complaint alleges Girtz replied that “everyone has the right to assert their position.”
The complaint alleges that “This course of behavior continued throughout the remainder of plaintiff’s employment with ACC. One of the foregoing employees even used the word ‘nigger’ multiple times and referred to an adult male, African-American as ‘their boy’ in telling childhood stories to others and in plaintiff’s presence.”
Five months after Girtz was elected mayor, in June 2019, Maddox was placed on a 60-day Performance Improvement Plan, despite never before receiving any disciplinary action or negative performance reviews, the complaint notes.
The complaint alleges that “the lone commissioner who was in favor of the PIP said that ‘they should just fire (Maddox’s) ass and pay her to leave.’”
According to the lawsuit, Maddox was unable to fully comply with some items listed in the PIP “because the deadline had not yet occurred prior to her termination” or other items were dependent on the availability of other department heads and managers.
In September 2019, Girtz denied Maddox’s request for a salary evaluation because he said she did not deserve one, according to the complaint, and at a specially-called meeting on Sept. 24 of this year the Board of Commissioners noted to terminate Maddox’s employment, “notwithstanding the fact that her contract had been renewed” just two months before.
The vote to terminate was 8-0, with commissioners Mike Hamby and Ovita Thornton not present.
“As plaintiff was entering the meeting, she overheard one Commissioner’s rebuke of the other Commissioners as she was leaving the meeting. The departing Commissioner said to the others ‘you all are about to do something lowdown and dirty – I am leaving since I want no part of this,’” Maddox’s complaint alleges.
The complaint notes that Maddox was humiliated by her termination and remained unemployed with no source of income.
In addition to being reinstated by the county, Maddox seeks in her lawsuit backpay with interest, compensatory damages from all defendants and punitive damages from Williams and Girtz in amounts to be determined at trial.