A former Durham County deputy manager is suing the county, saying the current manager, Wendell Davis, demoted her and cut her pay inhalf as retaliation after the two competed for the county manager role.
Marqueta Welton worked for Durham County in different roles from September 19, 2005, until her resignation on December 28, 2016. Welton filed a civil suit on Thursday, naming the county, the Board of Commissioners, Davis, and human resources director Kathy Everett-Perry as defendants. In the suit, Welton says her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated, and she is seeking damages for the pay cut, emotional distress, and defamation. The suit says Welton was placed in a new position Davis was not authorized to create.
“This is a case about an exemplary, well-respected woman who made her way as a leader to the top echelons of Durham County government, then had the temerity to challenge a man for the top position of County Manager,” the suit says.
Davis said Tuesday that he has not yet looked through the lawsuit, as he had not been served with the documents. He declined to comment on the case, citing pending litigation.
Welton joined the county staff as director of human resources and was made deputy county manager on June 13, 2011, eventually earning a salary of $172,214. After Mike Ruffin announced his retirement as county manager, Welton initially wasn’t interested in the role, but eventually she decided to apply, according to the lawsuit. She and Davis became finalists for the job. According to the suit, Davis asked Welton after they were each interviewed to withdraw her name from the running because she “had been a reluctant applicant.”
Welton initially refused to withdraw her application but ultimately did “to preserve County unity,” the suit says. On April 14, 2014, Davis began his duties as county manager.
Three months later, Davis suspended Welton for five days without pay for missing a day of work, the suit says. Welton served the suspension, which Davis later rescinded at her urging, instead pursuing a “correction action plan” prescribed by human resources that involved regular meetings between Davis and Welton.
Over the next two years, Welton says Davis “belittled and embarrassed” her in front of coworkers. This treatment came to a head in February 2016, the suit says, when “a less experienced” deputy comanager was hired, and Davis began introducing her “as deputy manager in ceremonial roles over departments assigned to Welton.”
Welton was notified on February 25, 2016, that she was being demoted as part of a “reorganization plan” orchestrated by Davis. (That restructuring took the county from a system with two deputy managers to five general managers with specific areas of expertise.)
Welton’s demotion took effect two months later, and Welton was bumped from the county’s highest pay grade twelve grades down to the newly created position of economic development officer and a salary of $86,248. She was also moved from a county office to the Criminal Justice Resource Center.
The suit argues that Davis would have needed commissioners’ approval to create the economic development officer role because creating the job introduces a new step in the compensation plan for county employees, which the Board of Commissioners is responsible for establishing and approving under county code. However, county attorney Lowell Siler told the INDY Tuesday that the board’s approval is only needed for staffing decisions if they require a budget change. He said that oftentimes new positions have been reclassified and money was already in the budget to pay the employee, in which case the county manager would not need commissioners’ approval.
In addition, the suit alleges Davis then ordered the removal of “Welton’s badge access rights to everything except the Criminal Justice Resource Center and appropriate common readers.”
“Criminal and drug testing activities have no relation to Welton’s Economic Development functions,” the suit says of that relocation. “This move had a negative impact on Welton’s professional work, as many economic development partners with whom Welton was expected to work did not desire to conduct business there.”
In this new role, Welton says she was “set up … to fail” by being asked to do work she was not equipped to do, such as a traffic impact analysis and stormwater statement. As a result, “stress and anxiety” landed her on continuous leave in September 2016.
She resigned three months later and was issued a “right to sue” notification by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on December 29, 2016.
The Durham County Board of Commissioners heard about the suit during a one-hour closed session after its regular meeting Monday night. Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs said that, during the session, the board had advised its attorney on how to proceed with the case.
According to court documents, Welton has asked that her case be heard before a jury. The case has been referred for mediation and to Judge Catherine Eagles.