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Fallout continues after town manager photographs employee's exposed backside

Published: Aug. 3, 2015 at 6:00 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 7, 2015 at 6:00 PM EDT
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CHADBOURN, NC (WECT) - A former employee is appealing for unemployment benefits from the Town of Chadbourn after he says he was humiliated, then wrongfully terminated.

Johnny King was the public works supervisor for The Town of Chadbourn when the acting town manager took a picture of King's partially exposed backside as he repaired a water leak.

The following morning, King says Town Manager Patricia Garrell came to the public works office loudly announcing she had a picture of his "butt crack" before showing that picture to everyone in the office. Mike Foss, who was Chadbourn's director of public works at the time, witnessed this happen.

"She…knew better than to do something like that," said King, recalling the experience. "In her position of all things, you don't try to belittle somebody in front of everybody."

King's wife, Karen, was furious. "When I found out….she'd come in and humiliated my husband in front of other workers. You know -- you have set a precedent. How are they going to respect him? How are they going to follow orders from him?"

Her outrage over the way her husband was treated prompted Karen to contact a town council member to ask for something to be done. Karen said she wanted to make sure Ms. Garrell and the rest of the public works staff knew her actions were inappropriate.

Town officials held a series of closed session meetings over this incident and Garrell's status as acting town manager, but Garrell remained in her position for several months after taking the photos.

The Kings say when they refused to let this incident be swept under the rug, some town leaders initiated efforts to push Johnny out. King says he lost his privilege to use a take home vehicle, was added to the weekend on-call list, and was given work assignments to personally complete that were typically assigned to a crew of three or four people.

Meanwhile, news reports referencing the photographs of King's partially exposed backside made it on the front page of the local newspaper. King said he was wearing suspenders, but his pants were too big because he'd lost weight and they slipped below his waist when they got wet while repairing the leak.

"It's embarrassing. Can you imagine how we feel?" Karen said of their emotional state dealing with all of this. She also said if the roles had been reversed, and a male supervisor had taken and shared pictures of a female employee inadvertently exposing herself while doing her job, this would never have been tolerated.

The Kings say the drama started to take a toll on Johnny's mental health. On Wednesday, March 6, King left work early to visit the doctor's office for help dealing with the stress. King said he was prescribed medicine, and given a doctor's note allowing him to stay out of work through the weekend.

King says he notified his supervisor he wouldn't be back until Monday. During his sick leave, King filed a formal complaint against the Town of Chadbourn with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Raleigh, citing a hostile work environment and harassment.

A month later, King was fired. The brief explanation provided in King's termination letter notes they knew he was in Raleigh filing EEOC paperwork at the time when he had called out sick from work, which they called a clear violation of the town's sick leave policy.

The week after he was fired, the doctor's office provided additional documentation, saying that while King was "excused from work" he was "not to be in bed during that time."

We contacted an employment attorney to ask about King's termination for abusing sick leave, even though he had a doctor's note excusing him from work at the time in question. The attorney told us the doctor's note, coupled with the termination letter specifically referencing the paperwork King filed at the EEOC, provide King with solid evidence of retaliation and wrongful termination.

Mike Foss, King's director in the Public Works Department at the time the picture was taken, says he agrees King was being harassed, and traveled with King to file the complaint in Raleigh. On March 12, Foss traveled to Raleigh again to file an EEOC complaint of his own.

Both men were fired on April 8, and both termination letters reference the complaints that were filed at the EEOC.

According to a copy of Johnny's personnel file provided by the Kings, he started working for the town in 2007, and was later promoted to Public Works Supervisor. Multiple personnel notes in recent years reference raises and good performance, saying "John is doing an exceptional job" and has "shown a great deal of leadership."

There are two oral warnings in his file. One is from Garrell in September 2014 reprimanding King for not filling out a request for sick or vacation time. King says he knew nothing about that warning until after he was terminated, even though town policy requires employees to be notified if a formal warning is issued. Mike Foss tells us he was not made aware of this reprimand, either, despite the fact that he was King's direct supervisor.

A second oral warning stems from King's sick leave in March 2015, saying that he failed to call in each day of his absence. King explains he told his supervisor at the beginning of his sick leave he would not be back until Monday, and was told that was fine.

Now King is without a job, and can't draw unemployment, although he is appealing that decision to the Employment Security Commission and should have a decision in early August.

When we reached out to the Town of Chadbourn for comment, the new town manager referred us to the town attorney for comment. Town Attorney Butch Pope says he cannot comment on the specific personnel issues, particularly because this is a pending legal matter.

Responding to questions about the pictures Ms. Garrell took of Johnny King's backside, Pope says they were taken to prove the need for chest high waders. King is waist deep in water during the leak repair.

Pope says that Garrell showed the pictures to the staff in the Public Works Department for the same reason -- to prove the need for better waders. When we asked about speaking to her about this, Pope said he would be issuing all statements on the town's behalf.

Foss and King both plan to sue the Town of Chadbourn for wrongful termination.

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