County asks judge to dismiss wrongful termination suit, claiming it had no control over court office

Beaufort County shouldn’t be a defendant in a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by former deputy clerk of court Janice Young, the county’s lawyers say.

A motion filed recently by the county’s lawyer argues that the county should be let out of the suit because it has no authority over elected constitutional officers.

Young’s suit claimed she was fired in July by former Clerk of Court Elizabeth Smith because Young cooperated with an S.C. Ethics Commission investigation into Smith’s use of public funds. Her dismissal violated the state’s whistle-blower law, she said.

Young also claimed she wouldn’t have been fired had county officials disciplined Smith for something Young said they knew about, but didn’t act on: Smith’s payments of thousands of dollars in clothing stipends to employees in her office.The county said it shouldn’t be a defendant because it had no authority over Smith.

“What (Young) must prove ... is that Beaufort County was an employer with authority to dismiss the clerk of court,” the county’s response to the suit states. “Here, Beaufort County has no such authority. The clerk of court is an elected official.”

Young’s attorney, Amy Gaffney of Columbia, said she hopes to prove a connection between the former clerk and county officials.“It doesn’t surprise me,” Gaffney said of he county’s position. “On the face of their pleadings, they are taking the angle that the county is wholly separate from the clerk of court’s office. If the court allows, we will show that there were sufficient contacts between the clerk of court’s office and the county.”

The clerk of court is an elected official, but the county pays the office’s employees and County Council approves its budget.Gaffney said county administrator Gary Kubic in 2007 questioned the former clerk about clothing stipends she had given to clerk’s office employees but did not follow up. Young claims those discussions prompted Smith to fire her from the $64,583-a-year job.

Young said Smith told her she was being fired for insubordination, but Young said the real reason was retaliation for cooperating with investigators looking into Smith's use of public funds.

Young appealed her termination and a county grievance board recommended she be reinstated, but current clerk of court Jerri Ann Roseneau chose not to rehire her. County rules allow Roseneau to accept or reject the grievance committee’s recommendation.

Roseneau also is a defendant in the suit.

Young seeks actual financial damages; her suit specifies no dollar amount.

Smith resigned July 30 after she was charged with embezzling public funds and misconduct in office for allegedly writing $23,500 in checks from public accounts for her own use. Smith has pleaded not guilty to all charges.