Graham city manager Megan Garner says that, in her former role as a Rural Hall town manger, she was subjected to a hostile work environment, giving her no option but to resign on October 21, 2021 and accept approximately $150,000 as severance as she left, based on her much-awaited response to the lawsuit her former employer has filed, hoping to void the six-figure settlement she negotiated with the town.
The nearly $150,000 “settlement agreement” and was intended to compensate for a hostile work environment that Garner claims she was subjected to because she’s a woman.
The settlement was approved by three now-former Rural Hall town councilmen, who resigned their seats the same night Garner resigned as town manager.
The following morning, on October 22, Graham’s city council voted unanimously to hire Garner for the city manager’s job. She began her duties with the city on November 15.
Garner initially threatened to sue the town twice last year for allegedly discriminating against her on the basis of her sex, according to two letters that her attorney, Valerie Bateman of New South Law Firm in Carrboro, included with the motion she filed last week in Forsyth County superior court.
In August 2021, Bateman sent then-town attorney D. Barrett Burge two letters, which are included in the court file, outlining “Ms. Garner’s legal claims,” which appeared to have come to a head during an August 9, town council meeting. Burge subsequently ended his 45-year tenure as the attorney for Rural Hall on October 21, 2021, the same date as the councilmen’s and Garner’s resignations.
Read full text of Garner’s response to Rural Hall lawsuit HERE:
Garner claims to have been repeatedly harassed and undermined by her subordinates long before that meeting, when she claims to have been subjected to a “harmful, discriminatory and embarrassing” attack on her professional reputation and character by a “disgruntled employee,” Misty Meadows.
Meadows resigned as Rural Hall’s town administrator in May 2021 but was hired for the town manager’s job late last year, based on court filings in the case.
Meanwhile, Garner filed a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on November 4, 2021, outlining eight allegations which she said violated federal non-discrimination employment laws.
In January 2021, according to her EEOC complaint and subsequent response to the town’s lawsuit, Garner informed the town council and mayor Tim Flinchum that “various employees and representatives” of the town – including one whom she identifies as councilwoman Susan Gordon – “repeatedly circulated rumors about [and harassed] her,” her response states.
In an amended complaint that the town filed in December, Garner’s former employer alleged that she had become romantically involved with a subordinate – the now-former fire chief Andy Marshall, who was her direct report – and that the two had been cohabitating.
The town’s amended suit alleges that Garner not only violated the town’s personnel policy in doing so but she also created a false narrative to cover up the relationship, portray herself as a victim, and to convince the council she should receive a settlement that was prohibited under her July 2017 employment contract with Rural Hall.
In her response, Garner states that she “then and now denies such rumors, allegations, and innuendo regarding her personal life.”
She instead insists that these allegations are “salacious, personal and have no factual or legal bearing on [her] job performance or resignation [and] settlement.”
Rather, Garner contends that she “was never given a negative” job performance review or threatened with termination for misconduct in any official manner,” according to her response.
In confidential correspondence to the council in January 2021, Garner shared her concerns about an alleged “campaign of personal attacks, false rumors, accusations, and insubordination in an attempt to create a hostile work environment,” which she claims were intended to force her to resign. These “personal attacks by certain employees and officials…were untrue, unfounded, discriminatory” and ultimately undermined her ability to perform her duties and were “directed at her because she was female,” according to her response and counterclaims.
Though Garner asked the council to address the situation in January 2021, she claims they failed to do so and that two council members even helped to ramp up the attacks. The five-member council could’ve stopped Meadows from attacking the town manager at the August 9 meeting, according to Garner’s account of the exchange, but didn’t due to “Mayor Tim Flinchum’s personal connection to the disgruntled town employee.”
Garner acknowledges that she hired an attorney, Bateman, to review her legal claims against the town.
However, her response is silent as to the town’s allegation that Garner used town funds to pay Bateman a $10,000 fee for negotiating the settlement on Garner’s behalf. The town later consulted an attorney representing its insurance company, which agreed to provide funds “toward the settlement,” and both Garner and the now-three former councilmen signed a release of all future claims.
The town is seeking to void the settlement based on its claim that it violated several state laws, which include the fact that the settlement was initially labeled “confidential.” North Carolina’s Public Records Law requires disclosure of settlements made on or behalf of public bodies, except in actions involving medical malpractice against a hospital facility.
The town of Rural Hall also contends that Garner’s settlement agreement failed to comply with a statutory requirement to conduct a “pre-audit” review to certify that the town had sufficient funds to pay the settlement, according to the original suit that the town filed on November 15.
In her response, Garner counters that the town’s finance officer could’ve stamped the document once the council voted to amend the budget to allow payment of the settlement.
Though Gordon and Flinchum refused to approve a budget ordinance during her final meeting as town manger, Garner contends that the finance officer had routinely used the stamp to “mark documents after approval of budget amendments” to indicate that the amendment “included an appropriation authorizing the obligation…to be paid by the town for the current fiscal year.”
Moreover, she claims that the council ultimately violated its own fiduciary duty by refusing to adopt a budget amendment to release the settlement to Garner.
Garner is seeking more than $25,000 in damages under multiple alleged claims, including intentional infliction of emotional distress, defamation, and violation of her constitutional rights “because under her employment agreement her resignation was not voluntarily,” thereby entitling her to severance.