Wrongful Termination Suit Moves On

SNOW HILL — The $150,000 wrongful termination civil suit filed last March against the Mayor and Council of Snow Hill and Mayor Charlie Dorman is moving forward this week after a visiting Worcester County Circuit Court judge denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case.

Last March, former Snow Hill Code Enforcement Officer Thomas Gorman and his wife, through Salisbury-based attorney Robin Cockey, filed suit in Worcester County Circuit Court against the Mayor and Council and Mayor John 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 refusing to play 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.

Last week, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss the case and visiting Worcester County Circuit Court Judge Sidney Campen, Jr. reserved judgment on the motion. This week, the judge denied the motion to dismiss the case, allowing it to move forward.

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.

On October 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.

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 told Gorman a woman was in his office adamantly stating that she had been in contact with the mayor, that the property had been separated into two uses and that a certificate of occupancy was to be issued by the Fire Marshal’s Office.

Because the woman presented no plans and because she had admitted having had no contact with a town code official, Sharpley explained he was not comfortable issuing the certificate of occupancy without first contacting Gorman and enquiring about the condition of the building.

According to the complaint, on the very next day the Mayor sought out Gorman and demanded to know why he told the Fire Marshal about the roof of the property in question.

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.

Even after the written notice of termination was presented to Gorman, he was offered the opportunity to submit his resignation, which he did immediately. According to the complaint, although he submitted his resignation, he could take the weekend to reconsider his decision and the resignation would not be finalized until he mulled it over. Essentially, if Gorman was terminated, he would be allowed to make use of the town’s grievance and appeal process. If he resigned, he would not be afforded the opportunity to file a grievance or appeal.

After mulling over the decision, Gorman then attempted to rescind his resignation and accept the termination, which would allow him to appeal. However, despite earlier promises the resignation would not be finalized until he made his decision, Gorman was informed the mayor had said too much time had passed and his resignation was final.