Friday, Feb 20–Lawsuit Alleges Discrimination Against Developmental Center

BERLIN – A former Worcester County Development Center (WCDC) employee last week filed suit in U.S. District Court against the agency and a handful of its management staff, citing an alleged long pattern of intimidation and discrimination that ended with her wrongful termination in September 2008.

Former WCDC employee Jometta Johnson, through her attorney, last Wednesday filed suit against the agency and two her supervisors alleging race discrimination, retaliation, assault and battery, and others including Americans with Disabilities (ADA) violations. According to the complaint, Johnson was fired on Sept. 25, 2008, after an alleged final act of discrimination and retaliation by her supervisors.

In the months leading up to her termination, Johnson was allegedly subjected to a systematic pattern of abuse and intimidation with strong racial overtones that reached a pinnacle on the day she was fired, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court last week.

“Ms. Johnson, an African-American, was subjected to a workplace permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule and insult that was sufficiently severe to alter the conditions of her employment and to create a hostile and abusive working environment,” the complaint filed by Salisbury attorney Robin Cockey reads.

The complaint lists as defendants the WCDC; Johnson’s former supervisor Sally Borzager, who was allegedly at the forefront of the problem; and human resources manager Nicole Dobelstein. It does not list as a defendant WCDC Executive Director June Walker, although the agency head is cited throughout the complaint, first for her alleged indifference to the situation and ultimately for her alleged racist remark at the time of Johnson’s dismissal. Johnson is seeking an undisclosed amount in compensatory and punitive awards as well as injunctive relief.

Johnson was hired in January 2008 as day program manager, a supervisory position. She has a master of arts in human services, but had not worked with individuals with disabilities. However, her employee performance appraisal confirms she was eager to learn and not afraid to ask questions. According to the complaint, her supervisor, Borzager, was unhelpful and brusquely informed Johnson she did not have time for her questions or requests for constructive feedback.

In April 2008, the friction between the two allegedly became physical when the supervisor “assaulted and battered Ms. Johnson without consequence.” One morning in April, a WCDC finance employee frantically ran to Johnson shouting Borzager needed immediate assistance with a disabled individual. Johnson rushed in and saw the supervisor struggling with the disabled individual, rushed to her aid and commanded the individual to sit down, a command to which the individual complied.

However, Borzager allegedly turned around angrily and forcefully grabbed both of Johnson’s arms and “proceeded to pull her first toward her and then push her away from her, almost forcing her to the ground while yelling ‘I didn’t need your help, I needed you to come and observe’.”

According to the complaint, Johnson immediately reported the alleged violent outburst to June Walker, the executive director of WCDC, and also expressed her other concerns about Borzager’s refusal to answer her questions and her tendency to make abrasive and condescending remarks. Walker allegedly made light of the incidents, claiming Borzager was under a lot of stress and would be in better mood when she got back from vacation.

According to the complaint, the pattern of abuse and harassment continued after that incident. Later in April 2008, Johnson was holding the door for Borzager, who was pushing a disabled individual in a wheel chair, when Borzager allegedly said, “Let’s run over Jometta’s feet with the wheelchair.” According to the suit, the remark placed Johnson in reasonable apprehension of an imminent battery. Borzager, like all WCDC employees, knew Johnson suffered from chronic foot ailments and had recently received a cortisone shot in her right foot due to an inflammation.

Johnson allegedly battled back and forth with her supervisors about the type of shoes she was allowed to wear. At one point, the human resources manager, Dobelstein, contacted Johnson’s doctor and asked him to rescind his note about the shoes. In another example, the WCDC leadership changed the agency’s dress code to include a paragraph about heel height directly related to Johnson.

The situation came to a head in September when Johnson arrived for work wearing the heeled shoes. Walker and Borzager allegedly told Johnson they were going to drive her to her car so she could go home and put on proper shoes. When Johnson refused and said she would find her own ride to her car, remarks were allegedly made that resulted in her termination and served as the catalyst for the suit.

“The pinnacle of Ms. Walker’s harassment of Ms. Johnson occurred seconds before Ms. Johnson’s termination when Ms. Walker yelled “get your black [expletive deleted] in the van right now or you will be terminated’,” the complaint reads.