By MATTHEW UMSTEAD
7:18 PM EST, December 13, 2012
The Berkeley County Council on Thursday agreed in a 4-0 vote to settle a lawsuit by a county employee, who claimed she was wrongfully terminated in October 2011.
Sharon Chaffee, who filed the lawsuit in April, was reinstated as an at-will employee in the Berkeley County assessor’s office in June 2012.
Chaffee will be paid a total of $58,000 for back wages, repayment of unemployment benefits, general damages and attorney fees and costs, according to settlement terms released Thursday by Berkeley County Council attorney Norwood Bentley III.
Chaffee is to receive $23,070 in back wages and unemployment benefits, which will be paid from the Berkeley County assessor’s budget, said Bentley in an email response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed Thursday by The Herald-Mail.
The West Virginia Counties Risk Pool, the county council’s insurer, will pay Chaffee $34,930 for general damages and attorney fees, Bentley said.
Chaffee claimed she was terminated from her job as a transfer clerk in the assessor’s office because she discovered property was wrongly classified for tax-assessment purposes and reported it, according to the civil action lawsuit filed by attorney Harry P. Waddell.
The Berkeley County Council, Gearl Raynes, in his capacity as the county’s assessor, and former Assessor Patricia “Patsy” Kilmer were named as defendants in the lawsuit.
Chaffee had asked the court for monetary damages, reinstatement of employment, reinstatement of all fringe benefits and seniority rights, back wages, future lost earnings and benefits in lieu of reinstatement, general damages and attorneys fees and court costs.
Chaffee was hired in July 2008 by Preston B. Gooden, who died in February 2009, shortly after being re-elected as assessor, according to the lawsuit.
Chaffee claimed her troubles began in the fall of 2010 when she questioned the classification of two properties, one owned by a member of Kilmer’s family and another owned by a fellow employee in the office at the time, the lawsuit said.
Chaffee had alleged Kilmer told her in January 2011 that there would be a reduction in force in the property transfer division of the office because there was not enough work to justify staffing levels, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit noted that a few months later Kilmer hired two of her family members, which the former assessor acknowledged in the fall of 2011 was a mistake and resigned from her elected position.
“I am convinced that I have made mistakes in the hiring of a number of summer employees and two full-time employees in my office,” Kilmer wrote in her resignation letter.
Upon resigning, Kilmer revealed she was accused of hiring family members without following West Virginia Ethics Commission standards established to prohibit nepotism, but did not name the person who filed a complaint against her with the commission.
Kilmer wrote in her letter that she had employed the nephew of the person who filed the complaint against her for summer work at the complainant’s request.
Kilmer wrote in her resignation letter that she wasn’t aware of the ethics nepotism rule until receiving a letter from the Ethics Commission on Nov. 21, 2011, notifying her of an investigation and a number of allegations.
Chaffee was reinstated, effective June 16 at the same or comparable position she had at the time of her termination.
The county made an unconditional offer of re-employment to pay her the same wage rate and benefits that she had been receiving and to reinstate her seniority retroactively as if she was continuously employed with no break in service, according to a consent order signed on June 18, 2012, by 23rd Judicial Circuit Judge John C. Yoder.
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