A former city of Aiken employee, an African-American woman, is suing the city, former City Manager John Klimm and current City Manager Stuart Bedenbaugh, among others, for alleged race-, gender- and religion-based discrimination, which she says culminated in her wrongful termination.
The severe accusations are laid out in a 26-page complaint signed by attorney Joseph Dickey Jr., who is representing Michelle Shepherd Jones, the city's previous public works director.
Dickey's firm is in Columbia.
Jones is seeking actual damages for her "economic and noneconomic injuries," punitive damages, reimbursement of legal fees, prejudgement interest on all monetary damages and any other relief the court deems appropriate, according to the lawsuit, which was filed March 22.
The lawsuit arises from behavior and actions Jones alleges happened when Klimm was still the city manager – he left the post Feb. 9, 2018 – and when Bedenbaugh was either assistant city manager or filling in as interim city manager.
Jones was hired in October 2016 to oversee the consolidated Public Works Department. She reported to Klimm and then to Bedenbaugh after Klimm's leave, according to court documents. Both are white men, the complaint notes.
Jones, after being hired, "almost immediately" noticed Klimm "treated her as if her presence was being tolerated rather than valued," according to the complaint. Jones later confronted Klimm about it – if he was "told to hire her," per the same information.
"Based on his interactions with her, it became clear to plaintiff that Mr. Klimm did not want her to succeed in her position," the complaint reads.
Conditions worsened after Klimm left, Jones alleges.
Jones was asked to resign on April 2, 2018, according to the complaint. She did not resign and was terminated a day later, the complaint continues.
The city then split the Public Works Department, naming one white man as interim public services director and another white man as interim engineering and utilities director.
The city's two-pronged public works structure is, historically speaking, nothing truly new.
While she worked for the city, Jones' top salary was $114,899.20, according to court documents. She also had full city benefits and a yearly $7,200 vehicle allowance.
Jones' lawsuit includes 10 formal causes for action.
According to the complaint, during her employment with the city, Jones' emails were "secretly" monitored; she was "secretly" evaluated; she was excluded from meetings and undermined; she was tormented, ridiculed and humiliated; and she was retaliated against for expressing her concerns.
And that's not an exhaustive list of the accusations levied.
"The actions of the individual defendants, while city employees or agents, created a sufficiently severe or pervasive environment, which altered the conditions of plaintiff’s employment," the complaint reads. "The work environment fostered by the defendants created an abusive atmosphere where plaintiff was subject to constant ridicule, degradation and bullying."
Around September 2018, Jones filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She alleged harassment, discrimination and retaliation based on race, gender and religion, according to the complaint.
Jones is a Seventh-day Adventist.
A Feb. 6 response from the EEOC – stating it was closing the case and had adopted the findings of a state or local investigation – is collated in the court documents. Documents related to the lower-level investigation are not included in the court documents. Calls made to the EEOC were not immediately returned Friday.
This is not the first time Klimm has been accused of race- and gender-based discrimination.
On June 14, 2017, former Aiken Human Resources Director Nola Grant filed a charge of discrimination against the city, specifically naming Klimm, according to documents obtained by the Aiken Standard.
That charge was presented to the EEOC, as well. The S.C. Human Affairs Commission issued a dismissal and a right-to-sue document in Grant's case. The document stated the commission was "unable to conclude" that the state's human affairs law had been breached.
Grant accused Klimm of subjecting her to a hostile work environment, which she said included harassment, yelling and bullying. Unfair pay and retaliation were also brought up.
Grant said her initial reports of discrimination were met with "further hostility" from Klimm.
Grant's filings allege harassment beginning in June 2016 – when she first joined the city. She submitted her resignation in September 2017.
The accusations made by Grant somewhat mirror those made by Jones. Jones, while still employed by the city, became aware of Grant's charge against Klimm, according to the complaint.
Inquiries made to Jones via Facebook, both last year and on Friday, were not returned. The Aiken Standard reached out to Jones in 2018 when the Public Works Department was restructured.
Inquiries made to Klimm were not directly answered on Friday.
Klimm did, though, forward the Aiken Standard what immediately appears to be an email that was sent by Shepherd to Klimm on the day he stepped away from the city manager post. The email reads:
Thank you for affording me what has been a monumental opportunity to serve as Public Works Director for the City of Aiken, under your leadership. Your confidence in me, and strong background of experience played an integral part in my decision to take on such a big challenge.
I wish you the best in all of your future pursuits, and will be ever grateful to you for the part that you played in making my future brighter!
The Aiken Standard could not independently verify the authenticity of the email.
On July 2, 2018, the Rincon (Georgia) City Council named Klimm as city manager, according to Rincon Mayor Ken Lee.
Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon on Friday said he could not comment on Jones' accusations and the related lawsuit. Bedenbaugh said the same.