Fired East Spencer officers file wrongful termination lawsuits

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 20, 2011

By Karissa Minn
EAST SPENCER — Two former East Spencer police officers have filed wrongful termination lawsuits against the town within the past month.
Cassandra Rankin filed suit Friday in Rowan County Superior Court against the town of East Spencer, saying she was both harassed and fired because of her sex and race.
Jason Sawyer names the town, the East Spencer Police Department and former Police Chief Floyd Baldo in his lawsuit, which was filed June 30 in Forsyth County Superior Court.
Sawyer’s suit says Baldo fired him due to religious discrimination, as well as in retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation claim and/or for filing a complaint with the Rowan County District Attorney’s Office.
At a called meeting Monday night, the East Spencer Board of Aldermen fired Baldo, along with Assistant Police Chief Tim Wooten, after a closed session. Darren Westmoreland was appointed acting chief.
Mayor John Cowan said Tuesday that more information — including the causes for dismissal — would not be released for about two weeks, to allow the former employees to review their dismissal notices.
Baldo did not answer calls from the Post on Tuesday or Wednesday.
Cowan referred all questions to Town Attorney Jeff Morris, who said it would be inappropriate for him to comment to the media about pending litigation.
“The League of Municipality will likely provide attorneys to defend those lawsuits,” Morris said.
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Sawyer, who lives in Forsyth County, was employed with the East Spencer Police Department from December 2009 through June 29, 2010.
His lawsuit says he needed surgery after suffering a severe hernia while getting out of his patrol car on May 26, 2010.
According to the lawsuit, Baldo told Sawyer that if he left work that day to see a doctor, he would no longer have a job. Sawyer alleges that when he said he was leaving, Baldo threatened him with physical violence and “the two had a minor scuffle.” Cowan then intervened and told Baldo to let Sawyer go to the doctor.
Sawyer filed a workers’ compensation claim, which was approved. His doctors said he could resume light duty on June 30 of last year and full duty on July 21 that year, but he was fired the day before he could return to work.
Sawyer’s dismissal notices lists five instances of conduct unbecoming of an officer — specifically dereliction of duty — which the lawsuit calls “pretextual and bogus.”
According to the lawsuit, Rankin overheard Baldo speaking about the injury while Sawyer was on leave, “indicating that Plaintiff was wrong if he thought he couldn’t be fired because he filed a worker’s compensation claim.”
Earlier in the day that he injured himself, Sawyer says, he also made complaints to the district attorney’s office against Baldo and Cowan for “engaging in allegedly corrupt, fraudulent and illegal activities.”
Sawyer is suing under state law on the basis that he was fired both in retaliation for his claims and due to religious discrimination.
According to the lawsuit, after Sawyer refused invitations from Baldo to attend church with him, Baldo told him he would not have hired Sawyer if he had known he was an atheist.
Sawyer alleges that Baldo then criticized and ridiculed him several times for being an atheist. Sawyer says he actually believes in God but has no religious affiliation and does not attend church.
Sawyer, who is represented by High Point attorney Robert J. Scott, is asking for at least $10,000 in damages from the town, the police department and Baldo for lost compensation and benefits, irreparable injury, damage to his reputation, emotional pain, deterioration of his emotional health and loss of enjoyment of life.
The lawsuit also asks for $10,000 or more from each of the three defendants in punitive damages, which are meant to punish defendants for alleged wrongdoing.
The town and its police department were responsible for Baldo and knew about his behavior, the lawsuit says.
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Meanwhile, Rankin, a Woodleaf resident, is suing the town for wrongful harassment and termination in violation of state law and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Rankin was employed with the Town of East Spencer from September 2009 through December 8, 2010. At the time, she was the only African American female officer working in the police department.
“She was subjected to persistent and escalating sexual and racial harassment by a Caucasian male supervisor,” the lawsuit states.
The alleged harassment consisted of racially derogatory terms and comments, sexually offensive comments, offensive sexual and racial emails and comments on Rankin’s physical appearance.
According to the lawsuit, when Rankin did not respond, she was retaliated against. She was not provided with standard issued uniforms and not allowed to perform certain police officer duties, the lawsuit says.
Rankin, who is represented by Salisbury attorney David A. Shelby, is asking that the town pay at least $10,000 for lost wages and benefits and emotional distress, along with another $10,000 or more in punitive damages.
Rankin’s dismissal notice says she was fired for conduct unbecoming of an officer, insubordination and gross insubordination. She says the real reason for her dismissal was the hostile work environment created by the supervisor’s harassment.
In July of last year — about six months before she was fired — the town of East Spencer named Rankin its Officer of the Year for 2010. She was the first female to receive the award.
In a Post interview at that time, Baldo called Rankin a “kind-hearted woman” who knew when to be tough and said she had been “the most consistent officer we’ve had over the last year.” He also praised her productivity and initiative.
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.