Former employee sues state employment commission

The S.C. Employment Security Commission is again being sued by a former employee of the Beaufort Workforce Center, who alleges his superiors punished him for refusing to grant unemployment benefits to people who did not qualify for them.

The lawsuit, filed in Beaufort County Circuit Court on Feb. 8, alleges that Horace Hampton Leysath, a former unemployment claims supervisor, was instructed by his supervisors to grant unemployment benefits to individuals who had not attended a required class.

When he refused to do so, Leysath was suspended from work for four days because he had "violated policy," the suit claims.

The lawsuit also claims Leysath, a white man, was discriminated against because of his race when he was passed over for a promotion in 2004 in favor of a "less qualified African-American."

Leysath was hired in December 1998 and quit in July 2009, citing the "hostile work environment created by (the S.C. Employment Security Commission's) failure to protect its employees ... race discrimination (and) failure to correct the fraud," according to the filing.

The state has 30 days from when it was served with the suit to respond.

Leysath seeks actual and punitive damages. No dollar amount was specified in the filing.

The Beaufort Workforce Center is the local office of the commission, which administers the federal unemployment insurance program.

Leysath's suit is similar to one filed in November by another former employee. In her lawsuit, Melinda Jan Rivera claims she was a victim of racial discrimination and that she had a disciplinary letter put in her personnel file after refusing to enter falsified information into the agency's computer system.

In a response to Rivera's suit filed Feb. 3, an attorney for the commission denied Rivera's accusations and said the commission's employees "did not perform any acts ... in bad faith, in a malicious manner, with corrupt motives or with discriminatory intent."

Attempts to reach commission officials Thursday were unsuccessful.

Rivers and Leysath are both being represented by attorney Bonnie Hunt of North Charleston, who declined Thursday to elaborate on either suit.

The lawsuits come on the heels of a legislative audit in which a five-member House of Representatives subcommittee found the commission did nothing to alert lawmakers that the agency's coffers were running dry. The legislature was forced to reconvene in October, borrow more than $700 million from the federal government and pass a bill extending unemployment benefits an additional 20 weeks. The audit also found the agency was paying out $171 million in benefits to workers fired for cause, which state law prohibits.

In a five-page statement to The (Charleston) Post and Courier this week, Commissioner Becky Richardson said the agency was "ruled by fear and intimidation" and acknowledged that "qualified people were passed over and unqualified and incompetent people were put in place and protected."

In response to the audit, the Senate passed a bill Thursday that would replace the agency's three-member commission with an executive director appointed by and under the direction of the governor. The Senate bill will be tacked onto a companion House bill before going back to that chamber next week.

The (Columbia) State contributed to this report.