The ousted director of the Durham County Department of Social Services has filed a lawsuit contending county and DSS officials violated her civil rights when they ignored her complaints about County Commissioner Joe Bowser, who she says in turn orchestrated her firing in July.
In the lawsuit Gerri Robinson names the Board of County Commissioners, the DSS board, DSS board Chairman Stan Holt, current Director Gail Perry, and Bowser as defendants. The complaint, however, is aimed largely at Bowser, the only person named as an individual as well as in his capacity as a county commissioner and a DSS board member.
“It is our position that none of those defendants have violated any of the rules or any of the laws that she has asserted in her complaint,” Assistant County Attorney Kathy Everett-Perry said. “All we can say now is those are just allegations, and we plan to respond to them.”
Bowser says the accusations are false and that the lawsuit didn’t surprise him.
“What they have done is holding true on their threat,” Bowser said of Robinson and her supporters. “The other thing that I will say about this (is) the lawsuit is accusing me, when myself as an individual had no power to do anything to Ms. Robinson.”
The county must file its response by April 25, and the first hearing likely will center on the county’s pending request for the case to be dismissed.
Due process rights
“Basically, Durham County, particularly Mr. Bowser, essentially denied Ms. Robinson’s civil rights,” said Jack Nichols, Robinson’s attorney and a former Wake County commissioner who has taught administrative and constitutional law at UNC-Chapel Hill and Campbell University. “She had due process rights, she had some other rights, and basically Bowser came in and pretty much ran this as his own operation, ignored existing laws in terms of how employees are supposed to be protected.”
The 16-page lawsuit contends county officials ignored Robinson’s complaints about Bowser’s alleged meddling in the agency’s day-to-day affairs. His actions included encouraging her to act against court orders in certain child care cases, and asking her to hire former City Manager Marcia Conner, the lawsuit states.
“Bowser implied to Robinson that her job would be at risk if she would not act on his requests or direction regarding staff and case work matters,” the suit states.
In response to Robinson’s complaints and her refusal to follow Bowser’s directives, he made false statements that resulted in her unjust and unlawful dismissal, the lawsuit contends. Those statements were repeated in the media by Bowser and others after Robinson’s firing, the lawsuit states.
“Bowser took action to terminate – and, through false representations about Robinson, to encourage other DSS Board members to terminate – the employment of Robinson,” the lawsuit states.
First public response
The lawsuit marks Robinson’s first significant public response to criticism and commissioner infighting that followed county commissioners’ appointment of Gail Perry to the DSS board in June. The appointment resulted in a DSS board majority that supported Robinson’s dismissal.
In July, the DSS board voted 3-2 to fire Robinson. It then appointed Perry interim director. In the next months, county commissioners traded barbs as they searched for someone to investigate alleged ethical and open-meetings violations. Commissioners Chairman Michael Page said he was told that Bowser orchestrated Robinson’s dismissal after she refused to hire a friend of Bowser. Bowser, who said he only suggested that Robinson interview an acquaintance, called Page a “liar.”
Holt and Bowser said Robinson was fired because of her divisive leadership, intense focus and spending on national accreditation, and the department’s fading community partnerships.