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EEOC takes up former county attorney’s age discrimination case; commissioners begin depositions

Their unamicable separation with their former legal counsel some two years ago seems to have come back to haunt the members of Alamance County’s board of commissioners.

Two weeks ago, the board’s members went behind closed doors to discuss a complaint that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received from Clyde Albright, who had served as Alamance County’s attorney from 2008 until he was abruptly fired in the fall of 2021.

In the meantime, at least some of the commissioners have been bracing themselves for interviews with the EEOC, which has apparently agreed to investigate Albright’s claims that he was the victim of ageism and retaliation by the county’s governing board.

The federal agency’s inquiry has merely heightened the mystery that initially surrounded Albright’s departure, which the commissioners had reportedly authorized in another closed meeting that took place on October 4, 2021.

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Under state law, local officials are legally obligated to publicly announce any votes they conduct behind closed doors to demote or dismiss their employees. In this case, the commissioners held a special-called meeting a week later to announce Albright’s termination.

But by then, the county’s top brass had already sprung the news on Albright himself, who was shuffled out the doors on the previous Wednesday morning ahead of a scheduled appearance in superior court on the county’s behalf.

The Alamance News initially learned of Albright’s departure that same morning from a clearly non-plused contracted lawyer who had been brought in on a moment’s notice to fill in for Albright at the superior court hearing. A half hour later, one of the newspaper’s reporters found the newly-released county attorney packing up some of his belongings into a plastic grocery bag under the watchful gaze of the county’s then personnel director Sherry Hook and county commissioner Bill Lashley.

In response to the newspaper’s inquiries about Albright’s sudden departure, Lashley presented a brief, and not especially informative, typed statement that confirmed the county attorney “had separated” with the county as of that Wednesday. Lashley added, in reply to the newspaper’s persistent queries, that the commissioners had authorized this move in their closed session two days earlier for reasons that he chose not to delve into.

“All I can say right now,” he told the newspaper’s reporter, “is that it was time.”

By the time that Albright received his walking papers in 2021, he had already filed one discrimination claim with the EEOC. This complaint was followed by a second shortly after his dismissal, which fleshed out his initial concerns that he was a victim of both ageism and retaliation by the county’s governing board.

In response to a formal public records request, the county has provided The Alamance News with copies of both these complaints as well as its own subsequent replies to the EEOC.

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Albright, who has since gotten a job as Rockingham County’s attorney, filed his initial claim with the federal agency on July 19, 2001, several months before his dismissal in October of that year. This one-page form includes a terse assertion from the then-64-year-old that he had been “discriminated against due to my age,” and, moreover, subject to retaliation “for engaging in a protected activity.”

“On April 30, 2021, the board chair told me to resign o[r] be discharged. I informed the board chair that I felt I was being targeted due to my age and would be contacting my attorney to protect my rights under my protected age group. On May 4, 2021, I was placed on a performance improvement plan by the board of commissioners.”

– Former county attorney Clyde Albright’s complaint to EEOC

In an accompanying narrative, the then-county attorney recalls that the first hint he was being targeted because of his age came on April 21 of that year, when the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners asked when he planned to retire in a meeting that purportedly concerned the county budget and his own performance as county attorney.

“On April 30, 2021, the board chair told me to resign o[r] be discharged,” Albright’s narrative adds. “I informed the board chair that I felt I was being targeted due to my age and would be contacting my attorney to protect my rights under my protected age group. On May 4, 2021, I was placed on a performance improvement plan by the board of commissioners.”

In his second complaint, which was dated October 16, 2021, Albright reiterated his earlier allegations before sharing some additional grievances that had occurred since his previous submission to the EEOC.

 

“Clyde,” an old mule; was there a veiled reference to county attorney?

He recalled one incident from July in which one of the commissioners had projected a photo of “an old mule” named “Clyde” during the course of a public meeting.

“The other commissioners repeatedly laughed at the fact the mule supposedly had the same name as me, made comments, and pointed at me,” the former county attorney goes on to add. “Later, the same commissioner who showed the mule picture in the public meeting came to my office, yelled at me, and was verbally abusive to me.”

Albright also recalled that, on September 29, he was pulled into mediation at the county’s request to go over his initial claim of discrimination. He added that this session ended in a deadlock when he refused to resign his position as county attorney.

“Exactly one week later on October 6, 2021, [the commissioners] terminated my employment. The reason given was false and pretextual. Although the termination document vaguely referred to weakness in communication, the other alleged reasons given had never been the subject of any type of disciplinary action. The only disciplinary action I had received as of my termination date was the August 3, 2021 performance improvement plan, given to me in retaliation for complaining about the age-related comments and discrimination.”

– Former county attorney Clyde Albright outline to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

“Exactly one week later on October 6, 2021,” he added, “[the] respondent terminated my employment. The reason given was false and pretextual. Although the termination document vaguely referred to weakness in communication, the other alleged reasons given had never been the subject of any type of disciplinary action. The only disciplinary action I had received as of my termination date was the August 3, 2021 performance improvement plan, given to me in retaliation for complaining about the age-related comments and discrimination.”

In reply to each of these claims, the county commissioned a formal response from the Teague Campbell Law Firm – which had been enlisted to serve as the county’s new legal representative even before Albright learned of his dismissal on the morning of October 6.

In its first reply on the county’s behalf, which is dated October 28, 2021, the Winston-Salem based law firm argued that Albright had no legal standing to complain of age discrimination since federal law doesn’t extend this privilege to “an appointee on a policymaking level or an immediate advisor with respect to the constitutional or legal powers of office.” The law firm went on to note that the five-member board which gave Albright the sack consisted of two members who were then in their forties, one in her fifties, and two in their seventies.

The firm also observed that Albright’s interim successor – Teague Campbell’s own Debra Bechtel – was, at 57, a member of the same protected class as Albright, which supposedly further undermined the former county attorney’s contention of ageism. Since then, however, the commissioners have tapped the then 39-year-old Rik Stevens to serve as a permanent replacement for Albright.

 

Leaving early, communication failings among critiques of their attorney from the board of commissioners

Teague Campbell then proceeds to offer a rather unflattering portrait of Albright’s job performance prior to his dismissal in 2021.

The law firm’s account begins two years earlier when Albright incurred the ire of the board’s then chairman Amy Scott Galey. An attorney in her own right who has gone on to serve as Alamance County’s state senator, Galey was reportedly “displeased with Mr. Albright’s work, communication, and work performance.” Her gripes, according to a contemporary performance review, apparently included his “failure to keep the commissioners informed of legal matters in a timely manner, his poor relationship with the sheriff, his dismissiveness,” and his tendency to leave the office before 5:00 p.m. (omitting mention of his equally consistent habit of coming in as early as 7:00 a.m.).

The law firm’s narrative adds that these complaints carried over to the commissioners who remained after Galey’s departure, including the three who had been elected in the fall of 2020.

“After the new board members took office,” the narrative continues, “the board voiced concerns to Mr. Albright about his poor communications and that it did not approve of his leaving early every day…Thereafter, two of the commissioners met the Mr. Albright [sic] further discuss some litigated matters, their expectations to be included in the strategy…Even during his probation period, Mr. Albright continued to leave early every day, his updates related to legal matters were incomplete, and he continued to unilaterally make decisions in litigated matters without the board’s input.”

In a second reply dated December 4, 2021, Teague Campbell’s attorney offered some additional details regarding some of the specific charges that Albright had leveled in his complaints to the EEOC.

In regard to the episode involving the mule, for example, the firm’s lawyer contends that the animal was originally brought up by commissioner Pam Thompson as an example of the friendly livestock that live on the grounds of Alamance County’s Cedarock Park. Although the mule’s name was, indeed, Clyde, he was never described as being “old.” Nor did the moniker seem to offend Albright, who acknowledged it was a “great name.:” (And while not mentioned in the lawyer’s response, Albright also shared a good-humored account of the name’s etymology: ‘It’s Scottish for ‘heard from afar,’ he told the commissioners, “and I bet you when he brays he can hear him from real far away.”)

Teague Campbell’s response goes on to assert that Thompson, in her subsequent chat with the county attorney, provided “critical feedback to Mr. Albright” on “how he was handling [a particular] lawsuit” and “how he failed to keep her informed of the lawsuit’s development.”

“This is a real example of how Mr. Albright was not meeting the commissioners’ expectations,” the firm’s lawyer adds, “and is an example of why he was ultimately discharged.”

“Alamance County categorically denies all allegations of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. Mr. Albright’s claims are frivolous and should be summarily dismissed with prejudice.”

– County commissioners’ response through the Teague Campbell law firm hired to defend their firing of Albright

In sum, Teague Campbell’s attorney puts no stock at all in Albright’s charges against his former employer.

“Alamance County categorically denies all allegations of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation,” states the submission from December 4. “Mr. Albright’s claims are frivolous and should be summarily dismissed with prejudice.”

Summary dismissal is, indeed, the fate that awaits some of the complaints lodged with the EEOC, which is tasked with enforcing a wide range of federal laws that address employment discrimination.

According to EEOC’s website, people who believe they’ve been treated unfairly by an employer or a labor organization can file a formal, signed statement to ask the federal agency to take remedial action on their behalf. These requests can apply to discrimination based on race, color, sex, age, religion, disability, or a person’s genetic profile. Claims of sex-based discrimination can be further parsed to include pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Other potential grievances can fall under the categories of harassment, sexual or otherwise, and retaliation.

In the case of age discrimination, an employee must be at least 40 years old to claim legal protection under the applicable federal law. The employee’s allegation must also meet several other criteria to be considered actionable by the EEOC. According to the EEOC’s website, the agency is legally obligated to accept complaints that don’t meet these basic requirements – albeit with a proviso.

“If the laws do not apply to your claims,” the website explains, “if the charge was not filed within the  law’s time limits, or if the EEOC decides to limit its investigation, the EEOC will dismiss the charge without any further investigation and notify you of your legal rights.”

Rather than dismiss Albright’s complaint out of hand, the EEOC has apparently agreed to delve deeper into the matter.

At the moment, attorneys on both sides of this case are conducting depositions to determine the merit of Albright’s claims against the county.

Steve Carter, the vice chairman of Alamance County’s governing board, informed The Alamance News that he has already completed this sworn interview, while Paisley, Thompson, and commissioner Bill Lashley acknowledged that they have yet to go through this process.

Commissioner Craig Thompson said he would need to get the current county attorney’s permission before he would say anything one way or the other.

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