$150K Wrongful Termination Suit Filed Against Snow Hill

SNOW HILL — A former town Code Enforcement Office has filed suit against the Mayor and Council of Snow Hill and Mayor John “Charlie” Dorman specifically alleging he was wrongfully terminated after allegedly going against the mayor’s wishes and refusing to sign off on a building with a collapsing roof.

Former Snow Hill Code Enforcement Officer Thomas Gorman and his wife, through Salisbury-based attorney Robin Cockey, last week filed suit in Worcester County Circuit Court against the Mayor and Council and Dorman. The suit is seeking a combined $150,000 in damages, including $75,000 in compensatory damages and $75,000 in punitive damages.

The suit was filed in response to Gorman’s discharge in October 2012. The civil suit alleges Gorman was canned after not playing along with the mayor’s ambitious redevelopment plans for the downtown area, and more specifically for refusing to sign off on a certificate of occupancy for a dilapidated building with a partially collapsing roof.

According to the suit, Gorman’s role within the town, the code uniformly required him to report all unsafe conditions and to ensure a certificate of occupancy was not issued to unsafe, noncompliant structures. However, Gorman was ultimately discharged after essentially refusing to look the other way when the mayor attempted to attract a new business into the failing building.

“Mayor Dorman exhibited an obvious deference toward potential new business interests, many of whom were his personal friends and colleagues, and wanted the town to be cooperative with such interests,” the complaint read. “Mayor Dorman made it clear he did not want code enforcement to halt or hinder the development of the downtown properties, thereby creating a juxtaposition wherein Mr. Gorman’s obligations as a code enforcer were suddenly viewed as antagonistic to Mayor Dorman’s pro-business agenda. The conflict between the mayor’s desire to court local business owners and Mr. Gorman’s obligation to enforce the town’s housing and zoning codes came to a head in October 2012.”

On Oct. 16, 2012, Gorman became aware that a local businesswoman desired to open a dog daycare and salon at a building on North Washington Street. Based on his existing knowledge of the property, in part arising from a consultation with the town’s engineering firm, Gorman indicated to town staff that the property would not pass a safety inspection in its current condition.

The next day, Gorman met the mayor for an on-site inspection of the property and informed the mayor the rear west elevation roof rafters were rotted and severely defected to the point the roof was in danger of collapse. The mayor asked Gorman if the front section of the building could be utilized in such a way that at least a portion of it could be occupied and used as a business. Gorman explained because the building was not properly separated, to ensure public safety and compliance with the code, the rafters would need to be replaced if any part of the building was to be occupied.

“Mayor Dorman was dissatisfied with Mr. Gorman’s response and instructed Mr. Gorman not to discuss the condition of the building with anyone until he could obtain a ‘second opinion’ from an outside consultant,” the complaint reads. “Mayor Dorman made it clear to Mr. Gorman that he did not want the town, or its housing and zoning codes, to frustrate his goal of attracting businesses to the downtown area.”

Later on the same day, Gorman was contacted by the Worcester County Deputy Fire Marshal Rodney Sharpley, who asked about the condition of the commercial property in question on North Washington Street. Sharpley explained he was not comfortable issuing the certificate of occupancy without first contacting Gorman and learning about the condition of the building. Gorman explained his concerns to the fire marshal.

“When Mr. Gorman replied he felt obliged to answer honestly a question posed by the Fire Marshal about a matter of public safety, Mayor Dorman said he never should have told the Fire Marshal about the roof and that Mr. Gorman was not ‘going along with’ the mayor’s plan to bring more business into the town,” the complaint reads.

At that point, according to the complaint, the mayor suggested Gorman should resign from his position. A week later, Gorman was summoned to a meeting with Town Administrator Kelly Brewington, his immediate supervisor, who presented him with written notice that his employment was terminated effective immediately due to “insubordination” committed when Gorman disclosed to the Fire Marshal the unsafe condition of the property on Washington Street.

According to the complaint, the sole basis for the termination was that Gorman failed to comply with the mayor’s instructions to keep quiet about the safety issues present in the commercial building. Brewington allegedly told Gorman her recommendation was just a written warning, but the mayor insisted on immediate termination, according to the complaint.

The first count of the civil suit alleges wrongful discharge. The second count alleges harm caused to Gorman’s marital relationship.