A federal age-discrimination suit filed by a former Bluffton police lieutenant who claims she was unfairly demoted and laid off can go to trial, according to a magistrate judge's recommendation filed Monday.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce H. Hendricks recommended denying the town's motion to dismiss the case. He cited statements in depositions from former town manager Bill Workman as compelling evidence that Workman and police Chief David McAllister were "illegally motivated" when they terminated Katherine Sours.
Sours, now 55, filed her complaint with the S.C. Human Affairs Commission and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that numerous comments made by McAllister showed that her age was a factor in her termination.
Sours, who joined the department in 2006, was demoted from a supervisory position to a patrol job in February 2009 and laid off the following June, according to her complaint.
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Town officials have stood by McAllister, saying budget cuts forced him to lay off Sours. However, Sours argues that two lieutenants with less seniority than she had kept their jobs.
In employment discrimination cases, a magistrate judge must review all pretrial matters, such as the town's motion to dismiss the case. The town has 14 days to file an objection to the Hendricks' report with the federal district judge handling the case.
Workman's statements, provided under oath, stated job performance was not an issue, but he "felt that (the other two lieutenants) would be with the town for another 10 or 15 years and that (Sours) ... would not."
Workman also said, "I hesitate to trivialize the thing, but in a football team, you've got some great performers who are closer to the arc of their success than others who are coming along."
Such statements are "not even veiled," according to Hendricks' report.
Workman also testified that he considered the fact that Sours was receiving a pension after retiring from the Coral Gables Police Department in Florida when deciding her layoff.
Other statements allegedly made by McAllister also support Sours' claim of age discrimination, Hendricks wrote. Sours has testified that McAllister said she was terminated because "you already have a pension, and that's my choice."
"McAllister claims the remark was only meant to console, not to explain," Hendricks wrote. "It is a disputed fact."
Sours has also submitted evidencethat McAllister "uninvitedly" referred to her as "Nana" and "Nana Sours," according to the report. The chief also overemphasized Sours' "years" of experience to other employees, commented on her "granny pants," and referred to her as one of the "old folks" and "past her prime," the report stated.
"McAllister swears the plaintiff referred to herself as Nana and (that) he only, and endearingly, followed her lead in employing it himself," the report said.
Hendricks' recommendation states that "the decision makers have essentially conceded, by emphasis on her pension and years of service remaining, that, as between the candidates for layoff, they likely were motivated exclusively by the plaintiff's age in the decision to eliminate her position over that of others.
"The defendant will have a chance to encourage a jury to believe that the statements do not mean the things they seem to admit so plainly on their face."
Sours has already been paid $86,000 by the town to settle a separate wrongful-termination lawsuit in state court. In that case, she alleged McAllister demoted her in retaliation for her complaints about his "inappropriate and unprofessional conduct," then laid her off because he feared she would report him for favoritism and a lack of professionalism.
The settlement doesn't come close to what she is owed, according to Sours' attorney, Nancy Bloodgood of Charleston.
"It's still a six-figure case," Bloodgood said.
In federal court the Age Discrimination in Employment Act will allow Sours to seek damages unavailable in her wrongful-termination suit, including back wages and emotional distress, in addition to attorney fees.
A trial date has not been set, according to court records.
Attempts to reach Beaufort attorney David Black, who is representing the town, were unsuccessful Monday. McAllister and other town officials declined comment, referring questions to Black.
Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/LCBlotter.
- Town pays $86,000 to former Bluffton police lieutenant in wrongful-termination suit, Aug. 4, 2011
- Settlement reached in Bluffton wrongful termination suit; town keeps amount secret, July 19, 2011
- Bluffton denies claims made in lawsuit filed by former police lieutenant, March 2, 2010
- Savings from Bluffton police layoff will add officer and keep center on track, chief says