Robinson, county prepping for lawsuit trial
Former Social Services Director Gerri Robinson’s lawsuit against the county and a former elected official remains on track to go to trial, a settlement bid having failed to produce a deal.
Court documents indicate the judge presiding over the case, U.S. District Court Judge William Osteen Jr., met with lawyers on both sides Sept. 16 to see if they could resolve the case.
They couldn’t, so Osteen gave them some trial-preparation deadlines to meet by month’s end.
Robinson’s lawsuit contests her firing in the summer of 2011 by the county social-services board. She contends it was retaliation for reporting to administrators improper meddling in department affairs by then-County Commissioner Joe Bowser.
She contends Bowser among other things pressured her to give a Department of Social Services job to former Durham City Manager Marcia Conner, and that he wanted her to help murder defendant and one-time Duke lacrosse accuser Crystal Mangum retain custody of her children.
But a federal magistrate judge who’s working with Osteen, Patrick Auld, this August recommended paring the case to one looking only at whether Bowser wrongly induced the board to break Robinson’s contract.
Auld saw little merit in the former director’s retaliation claim, deeming the evidence for it to be thin and the matters Robinson complained about mostly to concern her own interests in continued employment.
Osteen has yet to rule on those issues. Bowser’s lawyers, meanwhile, have urged him to toss the case entirely on the grounds evidence shows Robinson was “performing poorly” and “that a change of leadership was necessary and justified.”
Evidence placed in the case’s public file shows clearly that Robinson made enemies during her short tenure at DSS.
They included two of the assistant directors she inherited, Toni Pedroza and Sharon Hirsch, and at least one member of the DSS board unhappy with her handling of a major policy change regarding child-care subsidies.
County Manager Mike Ruffin also sided against Robinson, telling the DSS board three months before her ouster that he found her management style “impersonal and abrasive” and that she needed job coaching.
But other documents suggest there was a lot of behind-the-scenes disarray and disagreement.
Two of Ruffin’s deputy managers, Carolyn Titus and Marqueta Welton, apparently thought Robinson had performed well.
Titus emailed Ruffin in the fall of 2010 to call his attention to a Robinson initiative to improve the department’s use of Medicaid dollars. The director, Titus said, was “pushing her folks” and “finding indicators and financial reports [that were] not being monitored” by DSS staffers.
Welton, meanwhile, told lawyers she in conversation had advised Ruffin that Robinson “was doing a good job for the agency” even if she did have shortcomings “in the area of interpersonal skills.”
From her hiring in 2009, Robinson was “a change agent” at a department that had significant problems, she said.
There “were a lot of things that needed to be changed in the agency,” that “had not been dealt with by previous directors” and that in many cases “were personnel-related in terms of holding people accountable for actions,” Welton said in her deposition.
The DSS board in its formal performance evaluation of Robinson in 2010 had endorsed some of her more controversial actions.
It said Robinson had appropriately re-aligned the duties of her assistant directors to balance their workload, and by altering policy had brought DSS into “compliance with federal guidance regarding parental choice in subsidized child care.”
The reshuffle of assistant-director duties inspired a federal equal-opportunity complaint from Pedroza, who was unhappy about being given more work without a pay raise to accompany it.
Hirsch, meanwhile, joined DSS board member Stan Holt in complaining about the change of child-care policy, which endorsed paying subsidies to “friends and family” of low-income children in addition to licensed daycares.
The change drew opposition from two advocacy groups, Durham’s Partnership for Children and the Child Care Services Association, that favored channeling most or all subsidies to high-quality daycares.
Hirsch in a 2011 resignation letter said advocates remained “furious” at the decision, and Holt in a deposition faulted Robinson for not working more closely with the groups.