WCDC Denies Discrimination Allegations

BERLIN – The Worcester County Developmental Center (WCDC) and two staffers named in a federal discrimination lawsuit filed against the agency by a former employee last month, alleging a long pattern of intimidation and discrimination that ended with the employee’s termination in September 2008, have filed a formal answer to the complaint and are seeking to have the case dismissed.

Former WCDC employee Jometta Johnson, through her attorney, last month filed suit against the agency and two of her supervisors alleging race discrimination, retaliation, assault and battery and other charges 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.

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.

This week, attorneys for the defendants filed a formal answer to Johnson’s complaint, dissecting each count alleged in the suit and listing reasons why they should be dismissed. For example, in one alleged case documented in the suit, in April 2008, Johnson was holding the door for Borzager, who was pushing a disabled individual in a wheelchair, 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, because Borzager, like all WCDC employees, knew Johnson suffered from a chronic foot ailment.

In the formal answer filed last week, the defendants acknowledged Borzager made the remark about running over Johnson’s feet, but deny they knew she thought it was anything but a joke and deny they knew Johnson would take the remark as a threat.

“Defendants admit Ms. Borzager stated in a joking manner ‘let’s run over Jometta’s feet’ to the individual in the wheelchair who had a history of depression, but defendants lack knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief about the truth of the allegations regarding Ms. Johnson’s feelings,” the formal answer filed this week reads.

It is a pattern repeated throughout the formal answer to the complaint. For example, Johnson alleges in the complaint she was discriminated against because her foot condition required her to wear shoes with heels for her comfort.

“Defendants admit the allegations regarding the WCDC dress code policy, and admit that Ms. Borzager asked Ms. Johnson to dress more casually and wear lower heels as was appropriate for her job functions and for her own safety, but Defendants deny that the dress code policy was revised; it was clarified.”

In another count of the suit, Johnson alleges a charge of intrusion upon seclusion, a legal term that essentially alleges her supervisors violated her privacy by contacting her doctor to clarify his note concerning the type of footwear she should be allowed to wear while at work. The formal answer does not deny Johnson’s supervisors contacted her doctor without her knowledge or permission, but it seeks to dismiss that charge because it asserts the defendants as employers had the right to contact the doctor.

“Defendants admit that Ms. Dobelstein found Ms. Johnson’s shoes to be in violation of the revised dress code policy, and admits that Ms. Dobelstein spoke to Dr. Rano seeking clarification of his vague doctor’s note and the Dr. Rano faxed her a revised doctor’s note,” the document reads.

The situation came to a head in September 2008 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.

However, while the formal answer acknowledges Johnson was terminated following the incident in September 2008, it denies the alleged racist remark was ever made.

“Defendants admit the allegations that Ms. Johnson was informed that her high heels were not in compliance with WCDC policy and admit that Ms. Johnson was told that she would be taken to the Holly Center to retrieve her car so she could drive home and change her shoes,” the document reads. “Defendants admit that shortly after the incident, Ms. Johnson received her letter of termination.”