Judge dismisses lawsuit by former DSS boss

Oct. 30, 2013 @ 06:47 PM

A federal judge has dismissed former Social Services Director Gerri Robinson’s lawsuit against the county, the Durham DSS board and former County Commissioner Joe Bowser.

The decision from U.S. District Court Judge James Beaty Jr. rejected a federal magistrate’s advice that Robinson should be allowed to pursue a case against Bowser for interfering with her contract rights.

Robinson never produced any evidence showing she had a deal with the DSS board overriding state law that made her an at-will employee for her first two years on the job, Beaty said in his Oct. 16 ruling.

Her firing in July 2011 by the DSS board occurred about a month and a half before she’d have qualified for State Personnel Act protections that allow the dismissal of career employees only for “just cause.”

“There is no question [Robinson] failed to fulfill the 24-month employment requirement” to become a protected career employee, Beaty said, adding there was “no genuine dispute of material fact” to justify sending the case to trial.

Beaty otherwise accepted the recommendations for handling the case that came in August from U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick Auld.

The magistrate advised dismissing claims against the county, the DSS board and DSS board members that, among other things, involved an allegation that Robinson was fired for reporting to county officials that Bowser was meddling in department operations.

She alleged, as an example, that Bowser tried to get her to place former Durham City Manager Marcia Conner in a DSS staff job.

She also claimed that Bowser tried to intervene in the department’s handling of a child-custody matter involving murder defendant and Duke lacrosse case accuser Crystal Mangum.

County lawyers argued that Robinson’s move to report Bowser was a calculated attempt to cloud the issue as the DSS board prepared to consider whether she would stay.

They further contended that she’d been “performing poorly” at the head of DSS.

Robinson joined the agency in 2009 and within months crossed swords with Durham child-care advocates.

Contra their preferences for only subsidizing licensed day cares that serve low-income families, she moved to have the agency offer aid as well to “friends and [extended] family” that are involved in a child’s daytime care.

Majorities on both the County Commissioners and the DSS board supported the change, the latter saying it followed federal policy. But critics – including some senior DSS staffers – remained unhappy with it.

The issue figured in the eventual resignation of a politically well-connected DSS assistant director, Sharon Hirsch.

Hers was one of two high-level staff departures that lawyers singled out as contributing to the board’s eventual decision to fire Robinson.

The second involved another assistant director, Toni Pedroza, who also filed an equal-opportunity complaint after Robinson shuffled the responsibilities of her senior staff. Pedroza said she was given more work without a pay raise.

As with the child-care decision, the DSS board at the time supported Robinson’s action. It said the shuffle balanced workload among the assistant directors.

But the 2011 firing decision came after County Commissioners replaced a Robinson ally on the board with a critic.

County administrators differed in their assessments of Robinson.

Both the deputy county managers she reported to, Carolyn Titus and Marqueta Welton, indicated at various times that they felt Robinson had done a good job.

Welton described the former director to lawyers as a “change agent” who held her staff accountable as she addressed issues that her predecessors at the agency had failed to deal with.

But County Manager Mike Ruffin in the spring of 2011 told the DSS board that he found Robinson “impersonal and abrasive.”

Robinson’s lawyer, Jack Nichols, couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday on whether she will appeal Beaty’s decision.