Forsyth election workers file lawsuit

Three former Forsyth County Board of Elections employees have filed a lawsuit against Elections Director Rob Coffman, Forsyth County and the Forsyth County Board of Elections. In the lawsuit filed Oct. 13 in Forsyth County Superior Court, Pamela Johnson, Terry J. Cox and Deena Head make a number of claims against Coffman and the Board of Elections. The lawsuit alleges that Coffman has engaged in, encouraged and condoned willful violations of state and federal elections laws since his hiring by the Board of Elections in 2006. In the lawsuit, Johnson, Cox and Head also claim that Coffman created a hostile working environment in the Board of Elections office by continually harassing and verbally abusing elections workers.

The lawsuit alleges negligence by the Board of Elections in its retention of Coffman as elections director considering the fact Coffman was a defendant in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed in Michigan before he joined the Forsyth County Board of Elections in 2006. Therefore, the board “failed to exercise reasonable care” when it hired Coffman, the lawsuit states.

Johnson, Cox and Head are seeking $50,000 in compensatory damages as well as punitive damages to be determined by a jury.
The lawsuit contains a lengthy list of incidents where Coffman allegedly made inappropriate and derogatory comments toward co-workers and in one instance, referred to Head, a seasonal elections employee, as “the local crack ho” who was “on loan to us from the jail” in front of other people in the office.

The Forsyth County Human Resources Department conducted an investigation into derogatory comments made by Coffman to Head, but Coffman was still retained as elections director, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that Coffman continuously used profanity despite requests from employees not to do so and made “insulting, derogatory or inappropriate comments” about people who visited the Board of Elections office. Jerry Jordan, a member of the Forsyth County Board of Elections, was first informed of Coffman’s behavior in September 2007, according to the lawsuit.

Other allegations stated in the lawsuit include:

In 2007, Coffman stated that he didn’t want to hire a particular woman because “she runs her mouth too much and she’s fat.”
In 2008, Coffman told Johnson and other Board of Elections employees that an employee was out of the office because he was having a sex change.

Pamela Johnson alleges that she was repeatedly subjected to verbal abuse from Coffman.
Johnson alleges that once, after getting her hair cut short, Coffman referred to her as a “dyke” in front of her co-workers.
Johnson alleges that in 2008 when speaking with Johnson’s ex-husband, a reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal, Coffman said he “knew why he divorced her.”

Johnson alleges that Coffman violated county policies on use of the county procurement credit card on three separate occasions.

Johnson claims that in 2008 she met with the chairman of the Forsyth County Board of Elections to inform him that Coffman hired a consultant without bidding the position as required by law.

Johnson, who was fired on May 1, 2009, said she was never told that she could appeal her termination to the Board of Elections.
Johnson said as a result of Coffman’s verbal abuse and the hostile working environment, she has suffered from “mental distress, health complications and ongoing emotional suffering.”

In the lawsuit, Terry Cox claims that Coffman made “repeated derogatory and humiliating comments regarding his age and visual impairment.”

Cox claims he suffered from stress-related health issues that resulted from working with Coffman and took early retirement on the advice of his doctor. Head claims she suffered severe emotional and mental distress as a result of the hostile working environment of the Board of Elections.

In January, Don Wright, general counsel for the State Board of Elections, met with Linda Sutton, the Democratic chair of the Forsyth County Board of Elections, and then conferred with Rebecca Vanderklok, a former employee, at the Clemmons Branch Library. Wright later paid a visit to Coffman at the Forsyth County Government Center to get his side of the story.
Vanderklok told Wright that Coffman had referred to her as a MILF, a crude acronym for a sexually attractive middle-aged woman, in front of other co-workers.

Vanderklok resigned in October 2010. In an interview with YES! Weekly, she cited a lack of professionalism on Coffman’s part as the reason for her departure. Coffman denied making the “MILF” remark in a phone interview with YES! Weekly, but said that the term might have come up during a conversation among employees.

After several hearings earlier this year, the Forsyth County Board of Elections voted unanimously to approve a formal statement “that we have looked at all the allegations of alleged voter fraud and we have found no credible evidence of intentional violations of the voting laws.”

Sutton said the board also looked into and discussed all allegations of employee misconduct against Coffman and that discussion of those allegations is protected from public disclosure by state personnel laws.

After the Feb. 23 hearing, Democratic board member Frank Dickerson said the board looked carefully at all the allegations leveled against Coffman but found “there was nothing there.”

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