January 24, 2013

Attorneys: ‘Bullied’ Murray magistrate workers may quit

Rachel Brown
rachelbrown@daltoncitizen.com

— Three workers in the Murray County Magistrate Court office will quit on Friday unless the county takes “corrective action” concerning Chief Magistrate Gale Buckner, their attorneys said Wednesday.

Chattanooga attorney Stuart F. James and Ringgold attorney McCracken Poston said they have notified county officials that Virginia Rector, Sonia Petty and Yesenia Galvin will leave their jobs unless someone steps in to try to reason with Buckner. The women are also planning to sue the county on grounds they worked in a “hostile, sexually-charged work environment” before Buckner took office.

James said that in recent weeks Buckner began enforcing a dress code on some employees but not others, told at least one employee she would get a raise while at least one more would not, and gave grunt work and tasks outside of their job descriptions to at least some. Poston said the women believe they’re being “bullied” by Buckner and asked to do “menial” tasks, including ensuring a “certain citizen never cornered the judge again.”

“They felt it was imminent they were going to be fired anyway,” James said.

Buckner said she couldn’t answer questions about individual staff members because of privacy concerns, but she said she put a dress code in place within weeks of taking office on Nov. 1 and is having everyone from herself and the elected part-time magistrates to the clerk and two secretaries learn how to do all the work in the office so employees can cover for one another when people are absent. She said she’s also working to reassign some of the workload among the staff.

“I think that all of us need to know how to do everything in the office or at least find how to do anything in our office,” Buckner said. “I want people to aspire to do more for our county, and in order to do that you’ve got to learn some other job responsibilities.”

James said the women believe they are being retaliated against because they plan to sue the county. The employees didn’t immediately return a message left Wednesday afternoon requesting comment after their work hours.

Buckner was appointed by the Conasauga Judicial Circuit Superior Court judges after Bryant Cochran resigned as chief magistrate amid allegations that he pre-signed warrants and engaged in ethical misconduct involving sexually soliciting at least three women who came to the court for services. Through his attorney, Cochran has denied wrongdoing except to admit he pre-signed a handful of warrants that he never issued without a hearing, or planned to.

The same three women who said they feel wronged by Buckner received a right to sue letter from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) last week. James said the women worked in a “hostile, sexually-charged work environment” and plan to sue the county soon, likely within the next week or two.

“We feel like they (in the county) wanted them to leave,” Poston said of the three employees.

County Attorney Greg Kinnamon said he informed Buckner and Sole Commissioner Brittany Pittman about the notice he received from the women’s attorneys. He said the backlash from the employees “basically is a result of Ms. Buckner putting policies and procedures in place that will make her office run more efficiently, and she has the prerogative of doing that.”

“There were little or no rules and policies in place (before she took office), so all she’s trying to do is to strengthen her department and put some policies in place, and apparently they felt that that was intimidation or retaliation as a possible result of their filing some EEOC claims,” Kinnamon said. “So it’s my understanding that they feel bullied, which is in my opinion unjustified.”

He said any county employee who feels wronged may, per countywide policy, contact the county attorney or the employee’s supervisor. He said the only time the employees have contacted him is through the notice filed by their attorneys this week saying they would quit without “corrective action.” Buckner said she knew about that notice, but none of the employees as of Wednesday afternoon had personally told her they could quit by Friday. She said the office will still be able to serve the public even if all the office staff leave.

“I feel great confidence in that,” Buckner said. “This court is bigger than any of the six of us that is sitting in those offices, and that court will continue to serve the people of Murray County.”